K-19 The Widowmaker (2002) Kathryn Bigelow
Production Budget: $100 million
Worldwide Gross: $65 million
K-19 is actually an independent movie. The movie is financed primarily by National Geographic. The fact it bombed so hard being an independent movie makes it one of the more notorious bombs. The crew of the actual ship were sworn to secrecy until about 1989. The filmmakers attempted to work with the crew in making an accurate movie. The captain of the ship though sent a letter on behalf of the crew over inaccuracies in the movie. The most notable example being when (in real life) the captain tossed the guns overboard to prevent a mutiny while in the movie, there is a minor attempt at mutiny which is quickly handled. The movie was generally received positively (61% on rottentomatoes) but did not make back its massive budget.
Is it any good? Sometimes even The Moses can get caught up in the same negative press I try to rail against by this thread. I came into K-19 The Widowmaker with rock bottom expectations. Why? I dunno, the movie is one of the biggest bombs of all time, Harrison Ford has a terrible accent in the trailer, and word of mouth was generally negative. Well I have to say, this is a good movie.
K-19 is kind of like an anti-Titanic in a way. People with the Titanic had the feeling the ship was unsinkable and nothing could stop it and it was the height of ego. What’s darkly humorous about K-19 is that almost everyone in the crew is saying to themselves it’s pretty damn sinkable. In fact, most of the crew were hoping on luck or God to make sure they made it back in one piece even before the ship set sail.
K-19 was the first nuclear submarine made by Russia in 1961 and was supposed to be the ultimate threat to the Americans; a sub that could park off the shore of Washington and had nuclear missiles that could strike at the heart of the US. Really it was to be a showcase to the US of their power. The problem was the Communist party rushed the sub with shoddy products in order to quickly move ahead of the Americans in the arms race. Many of the back up systems were not installed and the primary systems were completed with low grade parts.
The first captain (played by Liam Neeson) was unwilling to sail the ship with substandard parts. The Communist Party sends another captain (played by Harrison Ford) to take command and carry out the party’s orders. Neeson is a kind of fatherly figure to the crew and Ford is a more hard line structured captain. Sure enough, they kind of clash and sure as shit, the ship breaks down. The coolant system breaks, the crew can’t reach the reactor, and if the core melts down it can cause a thermonuclear reaction. If that happens it could potentially cause both sides to launch nukes.
Part of why I like this movie is the play between Neeson and Ford’s character. Yes, their accents are very bad (Ford does it the whole movie, Neeson gives up after about two lines). But once you move on from the initial snickers they are good performances. Heck, I would even go as far as say Ford gives a great performance. They just have a great chemistry as two captains who have differing styles on command but do respect one another. While you don’t learn that much about their past, you do learn about them from the actions they do in that situation.
It is also interesting to see the sacrifices this crew made and the incredibly shitty situation they were in. They had to go about as low tech as possible to fix the tiny problem of a thermonuclear melt down. You watch as the crew knowingly walk into certain death in order to save the rest of the crew. Another part of the rush job the Communists did was they didn’t install the sub with radiation suits in case, you know, something actually went wrong with the reactor. So when they actually had to go fix the reactor, they knew full well it was a death sentence. That is very intense to watch what they did to save everyone.
Now there are problems with the movie. The main reason this movie failed (I think) is because of the budget. This movie really didn’t need to be $100 million dollars. The movie is heavy with special effects (such as that of the sub breaking through ice and the shots of the interior of the reactor) that even by 2002 standards look pretty bad. They did not get their money’s worth with this CGI. Even the practical effects like the old age make up Neeson and Ford have in the end are almost laughable. Really this is a movie which should have only had one set which is the sub. I don’t know why this movie cost as much as it did.
Another issue is we really don’t learn that much about the crew. True you can’t give us detailed info on these guys but it takes a little from their sacrifice when they are almost shown as nameless red shirts. Also a few of the scenes go on a bit too long and can be a tad schmaltzy. There are some other things but they are minor quibbles.
There are a lot of little flaws and these flaws do prevent it from being a great movie. Do I recommend this movie? Ehhhh it depends a little. I mean, it is hard to expect people to sit through 2 hours and 20 minutes of Russians dying of radiation poisoning even if it is a brave story. This is not however a bad performance by Ford and not a bad movie by any means and if you were in the least bit interested in the subject by all means. I was entertained.