Movie Review – K19: The Widowmaker (Mini Review)

Principal Cast : Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sarsgaard, Joss Ackland, John Shrapnel, Donald Sumpter, Tim Woodward, Steve Nicolson, Ravil Isyanov, Christian Carmargo, George Anton, James Francis Ginty, Lex Shrapnel, Ingvar Eggert Siggurδsson.
Synopsis: When Russia’s first nuclear submarine malfunctions on its maiden voyage, the crew must race to save the ship and prevent a nuclear disaster.


As dour, straight-faced Russian submarine films go, Kathryn Bigelow’s clumsily titled K19: The Widowmaker isn’t a great film. It pretends to be a prestige film and largely misjudges Western audiences in making its heroes – Russian navy personnel in the 1960’s – legitimate Cold War villains. With Harrison Ford playing an absolute asshole sub captain, and Liam Neeson his square-jawed and morally centered executive officer, both aboard a newly nuclear-powered Russian submarine and a crew of relative youngsters trying to get one over the United States, the film grossly attempts to hero-fy The Enemy, and extraordinarily fails. That the film came out hot on the heels of 9/11, when American nationalism was at its peak, didn’t help either. Yank audiences wanted to see good ol’ ‘Merican military power, not mid-20th Century Russkies trying to prevent an early Chernobyl. When the vessel’s nuclear reactor springs a leak, sending high levels of radiation into the crew quarters, a fractured Russian military drama starts to play our beneath the waves.

It’s hard to compartmentalise K19’s poorly judged decision to turn its Russian navy crew into a Das Boot-style martyrdom narrative with the traditional Hollywood militaristic hoo-rah jingoism, and the film’s poe-faced taciturn plot is aggrieved of any humour whatsoever. I understand the film is “inspired by” a real event (much of the truth of the actual story is lost in this movie’s decisions to abbreviate the narrative) and for that there’s some level of inherent tension within Bigelow’s dynamic camerawork, but the characters – in particular Harrison Ford’s belligerently aloof sub commander – don’t work on the screen. The film first tries to make us think Liam Neeson is the main lead, which is kinda is, but for much of the film he’s relegated to huffing and puffing around in the background, while Ford’s grumpy leadership routine misfires badly; are we meant to like him, hate him, or both? Not even Bigelow’s textured camerawork and subtle editing are sure.

It’s hard to enjoy a film, no matter how brave or heroic the story, when the characters in it are inherently unlikeable unremarkable. The supporting cast of nameless blonde crewmen, aside from a really redundant Peter Sargsaard in one of the film’s more thankless role, all kinda remain unmemorable, filling out the roster of underwater cannon fodder who are thrust into one awful scenario after the other – honestly, this is as close to an anti-propaganda film as any film is likely to be. Harrison Ford has claimed this film is one of those he’s most proud to have been involved with, due to the serious of its endeavours and the seriousness of his performance, but as a piece of entertainment this is an absolute chore to watch. It’s hard to make a terrible submarine film with such a wonderful cast, and aside from some terrific (albeit brief) moments of action tension in the latter third, K19: The Widowmaker achieves this outcome with absolute indifference. Skip this one.

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