Behind the Curve: K-19 Widowmaker

The previews for this movie, as included on the disc’s bonus features, paint quite a different picture of what this film is about.  “In 1961, two super powers are at each other’s throats,” Preview Man exclaims, “Now, only one ship stands between them and total global annihilation!  (Cut to clip of missile launching)  Harrison Ford, (Cut to clip of Harrison Ford shouting, ‘We will not fail!’ followed by clip of explosion) Liam Neeson, (Cut to clip of Liam Neeson yelling, ‘Our men will die!’) K-19 Widowmaker!”

Wow, Liam Neeson isn't even on the poster. What, was he not a movie star or something?

This based-on-a-true-story film takes place in the summer of 1961.  Cold War tensions were indeed high as Castro had just taken over in Cuba two years prior, and, as such, America’s efforts to dislodge him had recently begun.  The Berlin Wall was built in this year and nuclear arsenals continued to increase.  During all of this, the Soviet Union built a nuclear submarine, the K-19.  The film opens on the sub apparently in a live-fire situation until it gets torpedoed.  But then, psyche!  It was a drill!  Liam Neeson gets removed from command of the ship but is allowed to stay on as Executive Officer due to his familiarity with the crew and the boat.  (Greg, Jay, before you excoriate me for using the word “boat” to refer to a navy vessel, this is the word they use throughout the movie.  So take that!)

Meanwhile, Captain Ford is assigned to the ship in order to see that it sets to sea on time.  He arrives in Murmansk to find things way behind schedule.  Parts are missing, Nuclear Officers are drunk on the job, the Doctor is getting hit by a truck, basically the usual Soviet shenanigans.  Nonetheless, “We will meet the schedule!”

A word here about accents in films.  In my opinion, if you can’t credibly pull them off, you shouldn’t try.  Though some critics complained that a group of Americans and British attempted to kill Hitler in Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie, I thought it was better than having them all attempt German accents.  K-19 suffers from a number of terrible accents.  Those who choose to use them (mostly Ford and Neeson) do it poorly and the rest (Peter Saarsgard, random crewmen) don’t even try.  A united front is helpful for credibility.  Either go all accents (placing the audience in the role of foreign interloper listening to a bunch of foreign-sounding dudes), or none (placing the audience in the role of native Russian speaker [you wouldn’t hear a Russian accent if you were assumed to be a Russian yourself!])

The accents often slip, coming through only once in a jarring while.  Everytime Harrison Ford would yell “We will not fail!” I would chuckle at his efforts (not claiming I could do better!) and be pulled out of the experience a little by his pronunciation of “fayel!”

By contrast, I thought Cate Blanchett did a great job in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

(at 0:30 and 0:39 are some good examples!)

Cartoonish though it may sound, that’s what a lot of Russians (or in this case, Ukrainians) sound like when speaking English.  Yeah, it’s a tad exaggerated, but it’s pretty spot on at the same time.

So, Harrison Ford gets the ship underway on time, though corners have been cut, as is the Soviet Way.  As the audience (and Liam Neeson) later find out, the emergency back-up pumps were never installed and they were given Chemical Suits instead of Radiation Suits.  (Tragically, I found that last revelatory scene quite humorous.  It reminds me so much of life in the Former Soviet Union)  As soon as they are out to sea, Ford becomes a whip-wielding task-master, making the crew do drill after drill after drill putting out imaginary fires and solving pretend leaks and power outages.

"I said, 'Put out the fire in the torpedo room!!!'"

The men begin to resent him, but, naturally, all the drilling proves valuable in the end.  One of the main themes of the movie is family.  Early on, Liam Neeson tells Ford, “I think of a ship as a family and the captain is the father.”  While Neeson is the cool, popular, friendly dad, Ford plays the strict disciplinarian of this domestic partnership (extending the metaphor perhaps father than intended [Woah!  PUN!])  Fathermore, Ford’s own family history is frequently referred to.  Dangling participles aside, Ford, Sr. was apparently both a Hero of the Revolution and wound up in the GULAG.  Nuts, right?  (Actually, extremely common.)  Towards the end of the movie, as the Soviet Chiefs of Staff call Ford’s actions into question, his father is again brought up as a strike against him and Ford, upon being informed that his actions will get him sent to the GULAG flashes a very Harrison Ford smile and says, “It’s a family tradition” in his broken Russian.

Men get injured and the sub is nearly destroyed in Ford’s reckless maneuvers.  Neeson and Ford butt heads over the mission and each other’s performance of their duties.  It’s all very dramatic.  And then true disaster strikes.  It’s not like we couldn’t see it coming.  The Nuclear Reactor had been acting funky all movie long.  Peter Saarsgard plays the young cadet, fresh out of the academy, who gets transferred to the ship in the eleventh hour.

A Young Kiefer Southerland?

His Cillian Murphy look-alike of a subordinate has been tapping on dials since before the boat set sail.  Saarsgard himself noticed problematic condensation and shut down reactor number 3 to reduce the temperature.  Eventually, the reactor springs a leak and the crew has four hours to fix it before it goes critical and nukes the entire movie.

This first major climax was really gripping.  Going in to the movie I was pretty sure I knew a few of the things that would happen based on misremembering of old previews from way back in 20-whenever.  I was pretty sure a dude would go in to fix the reactor, get locked in, and melt at the porthole in a very graphic, panicked way.  I was pretty sure the disaster would get out of hand and the sub would sink below the arctic ice caps.  Maybe Ford would get his comeuppance either in the form of a mutiny or a crumple-into-the-corner-in-shock moment when the man melts inside the reactor.  Who knew?  Certainly not I! (Though millions of people and the internet could easily have told me)

So with nervous trepidation (redundancy?) I watched them craft a plan to repurpose some pipes to create a new coolant distribution mechanism.  This would involve sending in teams to weld new pipes on to the broken leaking one.  Cillian Murphy volunteered to go first.  This is when the chemical suits revelation hit.  They don their rubber suits and enter the 700-degree Celsius reactor and begin fixing the leak.  Each pair can only stay in for ten minutes before coming out again.  When Cillian Murphy and his partner came out, I must admit I had a nearly physical reaction to their condition.

"Cillian Murphy Look-Alike" is actually named Christian Camargo. I know where I've seen that guy before!
Peter Saarsgard is down with the sickness

Because they had been wearing suits while in the reactor, their features were effectively obscured.  The only hint at their condition was the few point-of-view shots that emphasized how difficult their task was and the moment when one wiped the others goggles of perspiration.  When they emerged as weak, dying, burned, vomiting shells of men I was literally shocked.  Obviously I expected them to have ill effects from going into a near-meltdown reactor, but the reveal was so surprising that I almost jumped back from the screen.  The rapid transformation from strong, healthy, young Soviet Sailor to slavering, scarred puddle of radiation sickness was so rapid and so complete that I could hardly believe it.  Peter Saarsgard was even more affected by it, as he broke down sobbing when his turn came and couldn’t fulfill his duty to finish off the weld.

A word about ancillary characters.  I always choose a favorite supporting character in every movie I watch.  I shouldn’t.  Ancillary characters are usually there to die onscreen.  Sometimes my choice of minor-character is an obvious candidate for horrific death (as in this case with the Cillian Murphy character [Also, did you know it’s pronounced “KILL-ee-an”?  Coincidence?  I think so!]), other times my character will stick around until the final moments of the movie.  I think the ancillary death that etched itself most strongly into my psyche is that of Biggs Darklighter in the original Star Wars.  For whatever reason (checkered helmet and ballin’ moustache.) my sister and I had latched on to him during the Death Star trench scene.  He had been onscreen for probably five minutes, but already we liked him more than we liked Luke.

One of us is going to die and the other is the hero of the trilogy!!

(We had been maybe not paying too much attention to the entire movie, it was the first time we watched it!  We always rented Ninja Turtles or My Little Pony cartoons from the video store and got pretzel sticks that we pretended were cigars.  We were creatures of habit.  [Rebecca, my apologies if this is a misrepresentation of your childhood.]  My dad would occasionally get fed up and rent us a real movie.  He picked the BEST movies.  First was the Three Musketeers, followed by Star Wars and Indiana Jones.  Man did he know how to pick ‘em!)

As the scene progressed towards the climax, music building, clock ticking, Darth Vader was picking off rebel pilots left and right.  After the death of Red Leader, Luke, Wedge, and Biggs were the only surviving pilots.  Rebecca and I were ecstatic that “our guy” was still alive!  Then Wedge gets hit and has to pull out.  He wasn’t dead, but he was out of the battle.  My sister and I had the same attitude towards Wedge that Darth Vader did, “Let him go; stay on the leader.”  Jumping up and down on the couch as Luke approached the exhaust port with Biggs right behind him, my sister and I watched in horror as: (Crucial moments starting at 1:29)

The fact that I remember it so vividly should tell you something about how it impacted my childhood.  (As a prideful aside, I remembered Darth Vader’s dialogue above verbatim and without any outside help.  Big nerd, right here, folks.)

So anyway, Cillian Murphy & co. had been reduced to radiation sick husks but the reactor was saved!  Hooray!  The Doctor had to lie to them about their dosages (off the charts) and Ford resolved to ever-so-slowly steam home.  Though an American Destroyer had appeared and was offering assistance, Ford refused, despite Neeson’s protestations that Ford’s role as “father” was to protect his “family.”  Ford scoffs at surrender and sails onward.  And then the reactor leaks again.  Neeson reacts a little dramatically, shrieking “Leakin’ in here; Monsters out der; all sinkin’ and no power.  When yousa tinkin’ wesa in trouble!?”

This is a production image from another film in which Liam Neeson's submarine undergoes a reactor failure during which disaster is averted only by the quick and direct action by one of his subordinates.

While Ford and Neeson get arrested and put out torpedo-fuel fires (a heavily-foreshadowed tertiary disaster) respectively, Saarsgard suits up and rights his past wrong by single-handedly fixing the leak.  Just as stubborn-old Ford is about to put his pride behind him and surrender to the USA, another Soviet Sub shows up to save the day, rescue the crew, and tow the prized nuclear sub back to the USSR.

The Coda takes place in 1989, as the Berlin Wall comes down—a nice bookend, given the year most of the film takes place.  Ford is called out for a reunion of the crew to remember the heroes who sacrificed themselves to repair the reactor.  Text over the screen informs the viewer that the entire crew was sworn to silence for the duration of the USSR and Ford informs the viewer via toast that the committee in charge of such things denied the seven hapless souls “Hero of the Soviet Union” status as they had merely saved their ship during peacetime from an accident.  Alas!

My final thoughts were that I really enjoyed the movie!  Though it has a dubious position on the list of the biggest all-time flops in Hollywood History, I thought it was really exciting and well made!  Nit-picky details (like Russians smiling for a photo, what the hell?  Or the obligatory Russian Folk-Dance scene or Ford reading Tolstoy in his cabin as if to prove his Russianness) aside, I got really engrossed in the movie and the characters.  The surprises came as genuine surprises and the turnaround in Neeson’s and Ford’s relationship really took me aback in its naturalness.  Though some of the scenes were a little too telegraphed (a sailor brought his pet mouse-cum-canary on board.  Surprise!  It died when the radiation was spreading throughout the ship.) the overall picture was one full of motion (PUN!) and excitement.  Peter Saarsgard’s character in particular grew in depth and inasmuch as I was invested in him as an audience.  His cries of “I can’t see her!” as he lay dying on a stretched trying to look at a photo of his fiancée really struck a chord with me.  I don’t know why.

I highly recommend this movie if you enjoy a good submarine movie.  My family once had Submarine weekend.  We made Italian Subs and watched Das Boot, U-571, and The Hunt for Red October.  We should have added K-19 to the agenda.  I think my dad would enjoy it!  (As a Cold War baby, he’s got a bit of a cold warrior inside him, peaceful though he may present himself.)

BRAND NEW RATINGS SYSTEM:

Cultural Importance: On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being Citizen Kane and 1 being Meet the Spartans, I’d give this a 4.  It’s not really a monumental film.

Quality: On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being The Empire Strikes Back and 1 being Monsturd, I’d give this an 8!

Ground-Breakingness: Okay, if 10 is Avatar and 1 is something super rote and by-the-numbers, I’d say this is a 6.  It had a lot of surprises for me!

Enjoyment: Finally, the category that I’m most qualified to judge!  I give this a 9!  I enjoyed it so much!  It was exciting and moving.  Not my favorite movie, but I have hardly any complaints of substance, especially when it comes to the enjoyment factor.

Would I Do It Again?: Hell to the yes!

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