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'K-19': a fascinating, refreshing blockbuster


Judging by the fact that it's lasted so long and surfaces so frequently, the submarine movie should be plumbing the dark depths of the megaplexes for many years to come. Even in these times, its necessarily narrow set and limited cast make it a relatively economical project, and its concentration on complicated machinery, underwater photography, and of course, the special dangers of the deep provide plenty of opportunities for exciting and highly visual cinema.

            The sub flick's familiar pattern of creating periods of excruciating suspense, while everybody waits in silence for the inevitable depth charges or crushed hulls or gushing leaks, culminating in some horrible disaster, virtually guarantees an attentive and appreciative response.

            While employing many of the pleasingly predictable structures and devices of its form, the new film K-19: The Widowmaker departs from tradition in both subject and theme, which may shock certain members of its audience.

            K-19 is, to put it bluntly, a Soviet ship, launched on its maiden voyage in 1961, in the depths of the Cold War. The two great powers, locked in a sort of global paranoia, kept accumulating ever larger stockpiles of nuclear weapons in preparation for obliterating each other and the world. Since the nationality of the ship and crew forces the audience to sympathize and identify with the enemy, once upon a time the picture probably would have inspired outcries, calls for investigations, the whole dreary spectacle of the right wing in full panic.

            Inspired, as its makers phrase it, by a true story, the movie falls into the recognizable patterns of its genre, complete with the requisite undersea disaster. An unlucky ship --- the crew calls it "the Widowmaker" because 10 men die in its building and outfitting --- from the moment of its launching, the submarine seems a doomed vessel.

            The crew distrusts the new commander, Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), who has taken over from their beloved original leader, Captain Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson). The new man, apparently appointed through influence and political clout --- shockingly, they do that in the USSR too --- is a rude, uncaring martinet who pushes the men and the ship to the limits of their endurance.

            After thoroughly alienating the crew and antagonizing Polenin, Vostrikov encounters the central catastrophe that will test his leadership and define his career. As they sail toward their destination, the Eastern seaboard of the United States, the nuclear reactor develops a malfunction that immediately starts leaking radiation all over the ship and threatens a thermonuclear meltdown. Since K-19 is near a NATO base, such an event could resemble an atomic explosion and trigger World War III. The officers and crew work frantically, risking their lives in inadequate gear --- naturally, the military delivered the wrong protective suits --- to find a way to cool the reactor and repair the leak.

            The situation creates the dialectic of tension that frequently marks the disaster movie, with crew members risking their lives --- many eventually succumb to radiation sickness --- as the reactor temperature rises. Compounding the tension, the antagonism between Vostrikov and the crew heightens with the temperature; most of the officers, including Polenin, advise him to request assistance from a nearby American destroyer, to save the men.

            The recalcitrant Vostrikov, however, insists that he will not disobey his orders and scuttle the leading vessel of the Soviet submarine service, whatever the cost in human life.

            The director treats the physical problem of dealing with the danger of a nuclear failure with a good deal of authenticity --- American film usually excels at the depiction of work, the sheer mechanics of some technical process --- but also uses it to suggest the typical military problem of the conflict between the stern autocrat and the humanist officer.

            For a while, the situation threatens to flare into violence and possibly the first Russian mutiny since the Potemkin. Without entirely justifying or explaining the conclusion, the picture comes down on the side of duty, the traditional solution to military dilemmas in any country, any branch of service, any war.

            In addition to its sympathetic presentation of Russian servicemen in the Cold War, the movie hints at other kinds of subversion in its reiterated treatment of patriotism. When the politically indoctrinated Soviet sailors of all ranks mouth their platitudes about dying to defend the Motherland, they sound sickeningly like the pious politicians in this country babbling about fighting for freedom and democracy every time they bomb some desolate landscape or defend one corrupt despot against another. In the cruel sentimentalism of propaganda, alas, all men really are brothers.

            Harrison Ford, now a great American star, maintains a stern Slavic demeanor throughout, frowning fiercely and facing down all his opponents with admirable strength, while once again Liam Neeson displays a depth of gentleness in his large, powerful body. Both men nicely convey the potential for diversity even within what must have been an unyieldingly strict, monolithic military, and their contrast efficiently embodies some of the thematic conflicts in the film.

            K-19 provides a fascinating and unusual glimpse of a hitherto untold story, a refreshingly human depiction of the Soviet officer class, and a useful variation on the good old sub flick.

K-19: The Widowmaker, starring Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sarsgard, Christian Camargo; story by Louis Nowra, inspired by an actual incident; screenplay by Christopher Kyle; directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.

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