K-19: The Widowmaker

Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
Running Time: 138 mins
Rated: M
The bricks of the Berlin Wall are the bookends of this excellent film. The wall was finished on 13th August 1961, just as the events surrounding K-19 were playing out. The wall had to be demolished in 1989 for the story to be told.

At the height of the Cold War the USSR wanted to let the USA know that they had submarines capable of launching a nuclear warhead. Rushed through construction K-19 was the pride of the fleet, but dangerously unprepared for its assignment. So much so the first captain, Mikhail Polenin (Neeson) is blamed for its pre-launch failures and is forced to serve under a new captain, Alexei Vostrikov (Ford). The crew call the vessel "the widowmaker." After they successfully test a nuclear missile in the arctic North Sea, Moscow redeploys the sub to international waters near the east coast of the USA. On the way, it suffers a radiation leak. The closest help is a USA naval destroyer.

Australia's Louis Nowra, of Cosi and Radiance fame, wrote the story upon which Christopher Kyle based his screenplay. The story is excellent, filled with genuine intrigue, good twists and enormous ethical dilemmas. There are just a few occasions when Kyle resorts to banal one-liners that jar with the rest of his excellent work.

Director Kathryn Bigelow creates an appropriately claustrophobic atmosphere within which she tells an epic tale in human terms. We come to know enough about several characters to care for them and to be involved in the outcome of the military madness being played out around them.

Harrison Ford delivers the sort of performance Peter Weir got out of him in Witness, disciplined and deep. Liam Neeson has a conversion in the film which happens too quickly, but it doesn't spoil the taut drama and his fine performance. The support cast are all good. The only distractions are the English, Irish and American versions of accented Russian/English and Klaus Badelt's music score, performed by the Kirov Orchestra, it is lush, but there is just too much of it. It's sweeping musical breadth undermines the closeness of the pictures it accompanies.

K-19 is one of the best action dramas of the year. Don't miss it.

Richard Leonard SJ

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