K-19: The Widowmaker

By their very nature, submarine movies are prone to wade through an ocean of clichés. There have been so many submarine thrillers (some good, many bad) that it’s fundamentally impossible to create characters and situations that we haven’t seen before. Since we have seen it all before, it’s up to the writer, director and cast to convince us otherwise.

Strong performances and piercing dialogue can turn a turd into a flotilla, but don’t expect that from “K-19: The Widowmaker,” a Cold War submarine thriller that sinks under its own weight faster than an anorexic pearl diver wearing her lucky lead bra. Historically inaccurate and self- serving to the point of being exasperating, I haven’t seen this much ham on a sub since my last trip to the Carnegie Deli.

As the films star (and executive producer), one has to wonder what Harrison Ford was thinking when he agreed to make this sardine tin of a film. The script, inspired by rather than based on true events (the difference between a Rolex and a Swatch) is so transparent and facile even a blind person could see through it. The characters feel manufactured, reciting speeches rather than delivering dialogue.

Director Kathryn Bigelow, who directed “Point Break” and “Strange Days,” and whose best film was her first, 1985’s gritty vampire tale “Near Dark,” hacks her way through one cliché after another in “K-19,” finally delivering what amounts to a food processor movie. Instead of sticking to the facts, writer Christopher Kyle has assembled a greatest hits package from other films. There isn’t one original thought in “K-19.”

Together, writer and director do a major disservice to a talented but seemingly indifferent cast. Even Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, two dynamic actors, feel like they’re going through the paces here. Except for Peter Sarsgaard, who plays a last minute addition to the Russian submarine crew, the press notes make no mention of the other actors. Possibly because the rest of the characters are indistinguishable to the point of being interchangeable.

You feel sorry for Ford, who speaks with a Russian accent obviously learned at the Shannon Doherty School of Language Arts, and looks so constipated you wonder which will erupt first: the submarine hull or the veins in his forehead. He plays a submarine commander brought in to oversee the launch of Russia’s first nuclear submarine, K-19.

Set in 1961, the filmmakers immediately stack the deck as we’re informed about the Cold War that lingers on between the United States and Russia, and that at any moment nuclear war could break out. This little tidbit of information is supposed to set up the suspense in “K-19,” but instead completely dilutes it. It’s a cheap stunt to pump up the theatrics. I saw the real story of “K-19” on the History Channel and was completely riveted. Often Hollywood forgets that real life can be more compelling than fiction.

The script wastes no time in setting up tension between Ford’s no-nonsense, by-the-book commander, and Liam Neeson’s friendly, compassionate commander, now reduced in rank to executive officer. Neeson makes it easy for us to understand why his crew respects him more than Ford, but once that point is made the actors have no place to go. Peter Sarsgaard, who lit up the screen in “Boys Don’t Cry” and “The End of the World,” ends up being saddled with the sacrificial lamb role.

It doesn’t take a nuclear scientist to realize that Sarsgaard’s character, a reactor specialist who is brought aboard at a last minute replacement, still wet behind the ears, engaged to be married, will meet an unfortunate end. Bigelow doesn’t just telegraph this plot point, she hand delivers it in a sappy scene where his character is seen writing to his bride to be, pen in one hand, her photo in the other, in case he dies.

After an hour of periscope up, “K-19” begins to show promise, especially when a nuclear reactor threatens to melt-down. Once the threat is discovered, the plot slips back into dive mode, where it never resurfaces. We never feel trapped inside “The Widowmaker” with the rest of the crew. Bigelow’s self-conscious cinematography (shot by Jeff Cronenweth) keeps us constantly aware that this is all a movie.

Bigelow is so pre-occupied with keeping the camera moving that she never allows it to stay still long enough for the characters develop. Klaus Badelt’s score is supposed to support rather than engulf the action, yet he strokes the violins so hard they become nothing more than musical masturbation. “K-19” is nothing more than a bad wet dream.


Submarine thriller had hard time staying above water


Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sarsgaard. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Rated PG-13. 128 Minutes.


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