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K-19: The Widowmaker

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2002 1 Jan
K-19: The Widowmaker

from Film Forum, 02/07/02

Speaking of the Force, Harrison Ford returns in K-19: The Widowmaker, playing against type. He's cast as the big cheese on a Russian nuclear submarine when its reactor develops a dangerous flaw. Liam Neeson is also on board in this actioner directed by Katheryn Bigelow (The Peacemaker.)

from Film Forum, 07/25/02

After seeing K-19: The Widowmaker, Holly McClure (Crosswalk) wrote, "Before going to this movie, I realized I was a bit prejudiced about seeing a story that would require me to root for a communist Russian submarine and its crew. As a child, I remember the Cold War propaganda that viewed Russians as 'the enemy,' and even though that mindset in this country has clearly changed, I have to admit, I didn't think I would care about the story."

But McClure was impressed with the film and stirred by its suspenseful story. Should we be concerned if we find ourselves cheering for nuke-bearing Communists? The soldiers on board the K-19 submarine—the subject of director Kathryn Bigelow's new summer action/suspense film—are clearly committed Soviets who live in fear and hatred of America. We even see them watching anti-American propaganda films. Why then are audiences, even American moviegoers, rooting for them?

It's not the first time this has happened. The predicament of German sailors in Das Boot (still the greatest submarine film yet made) makes audiences hold their breath as the sub comes under attack. Perhaps our distance from World War II allows us to think more sympathetically of those who opposed us.

But there is more to it than that. War films that take us outside the usual good-guy/bad-guy dynamic can cultivate in us an ability to sympathize with our enemies. The metal confines of a sub's fragile and claustrophobia-inducing space remind us of how much we have in common with those of different political and religious convictions. Such sub-surface limitations reveal fears familiar to us, and the intensity of the drama inspires virtuous heroics that cannot help but move us. Our feelings about their political orientation become secondary to our understanding of the risks they take. J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) says, "For some folks, rooting for the Soviets in 1961 might seem odd, but those concerns are soon outweighed by the difficult situation the men find themselves in." He concludes, "Widowmaker is a tense, taut submarine thriller."

We should definitely keep clear in our minds the flaws in the philosophies and tactics of our enemies. But surely we can find room in our hearts for sympathy. Christ's exhortation goes even further than "sympathy." He wants us to love our enemies. It might be a good exercise for our hearts to imagine this sub being full of men who are currently opposing us—Osama bin Laden's trained terrorists, for example. Might we find the courage to love and pray for them in the midst of their error? (My full review of the film is at Looking Closer.)

K-19: The Widowmaker is based on history. In 1961, the Russian military sent out an unprepared, top-secret nuclear sub to fire a test missile, thus showing the world that Russia was a force to be reckoned with. In this fictional account of the crew's trials, the leader of K-19's crew, Captain Polenin (Liam Neeson) is demoted to executive officer when his superiors decide he is too lenient with his crew. Captain Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), a gruff, tough commander, takes charge, driving the boat to the edge of its capabilities and the crew to the edge of its wits. Tempers flare between Polenin and Vostrikov while the rookie crew members quietly assure their former captain that he still has their loyalty. All they want to do is conduct their test and go home. But when the nuclear core of one of the boat's reactors starts overheating, they may inadvertently start World War III.

Many critics have lined up to ridicule K-19's lack of convincing Russian accents. (Anthony Lane of The New Yorker says Ford's attempt to sound Soviet is the film's most striking "special effect.") I too found the vague, inconsistent voices a problem, until I was reminded that the Soviet military was made up of soldiers from around the globe, including men from Great Britain, North America, and Scandinavia. Thus, the muddled accents are probably accurate.

Others complain that this film doesn't measure up to the action and suspense we've seen in past submarine-bound war films like Crimson Tide and U-571. But K-19 might not even qualify as a "war movie." It's about the possible consequences of a government that has become recklessly arrogant. It is also about putting pride before compassion, as Vostrikov pushes his men to unreasonable extremes. In the end, the film is a moving portrait of courage and selflessness under the shadow of death. However historically accurate Bigelow's nerve-jangling film is, it certainly haunts us with what might have been.

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) says, "The submarine feels appropriately claustrophobic; the mission resonates with a sense of doom; and opportunities for courage and cowardice play as gravely as they surely were. [The movie] runs a little too long, eschews subtext at times, and suffers a bit from dim characterizations. But like the crew that manned the ship in 1961, it manages not to crack under pressure."

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) also offers a mixed response: "It's hard to be unmoved by what the men of the K-19 go through, but it's equally hard to overlook the glaring flaws in the human drama. As an exercise in logistics and adversity, K-19 is compelling, but as a story about human decisions and moral issues, it's full of holes and clichés."

Likewise, Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says that "something is missing. The film simply fails to subject its audience to the same nerve-wracking emotional pressure that its characters face."

But Elliott adds that Ford and Neeson "give studied, controlled performances." I have to agree—I was thrilled to see the return of Harrison Ford the compelling actor. Ford has seemed miscast, disappointing, and even dull in all of his films since The Fugitive. Here, he makes the prospect of this cantankerous captain losing his temper almost as frightening as the failure of the sub's volatile reactor. "Harrison Ford is quite good riding a fine line between villainy and good," concludes Marie Asner (The Phantom Tollbooth).

Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) argues that the dominance of Hollywood fiction over historical fact disrupts the experience. "You just can't bring yourself to trust what your eyes are beholding." He points out that retired Russian submariners are protesting the film's inaccuracies. A group spokesman says, "This film isn't about Russians, but about how Americans want to see Russians."

John Evans (Preview) calls it "an inspiring story of courage and heroism." But he is most impressed by "the complete lack of foul language. It proves that foul language is not necessary for a film to be highly realistic."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' critic reports that the film is "not gripping. Ford is stiff in the role, grimly enunciating with a passable Russian accent, but never looking convincing or comfortable in his portrayal of the stoic sub commander." And Ted Baehr (Movieguide) claims, "The accents are atrocious" and "There are long sections of boredom in this overlong movie." He goes even farther, claiming the film is pro-Communist.

Mainstream critics were divided on the same issue. John Powers (L.A. Weekly) says, "K-19 is so unnervingly square that it seems eerily like Party-sanctioned Soviet filmmaking: Its Motherland-loving sailors, myth-making shots of K-19, and displays of heroism are worthy of the Young Lenin Pioneers' Handbook."

Not everyone agrees. "It would be a grave mistake to view K-19 as a pro-Soviet film," says Andrew O'Hehir ( "As an audience we must acknowledge the brave self-sacrifice of men who believed they were serving the Communist Party and the Soviet state, even though that party and that state had sent them out into the ocean on a poorly insulated pile of smoldering plutonium."

O'Hehir also points out how the film transcends the politics of the situation to highlight the bravery of a few men who risked their lives to prevent an apocalypse that would destroy far more than the motherland. "Of course the Hollywood party line is that K-19 is nothing more than a good story, but Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break,Strange Days) is a cannier and trickier filmmaker than that. Not only does she not seek black-and-white moral equations, she actively tries to undermine them. Even in this movie's few lighter moments … it remains a fable about the perils of a Manichaean worldview, the danger that dividing the world into implacable camps of friends and foes leads to the annihilation of both. It's just as valuable a lesson as it was 40 years ago—and just as devilishly difficult to apply to reality."

from Film Forum, 08/01/02

K-19: The Widowmaker received further responses from Christian media critics (writing in both religious and mainstream publications) this week. Kathryn Bigelow's submarine film continues to impress viewers with its suspense and riveting true-life drama. (See earlier responses here.)

Peter T. Chattaway (Vancouver Courier) says, "The film is longer than it needs to be, thanks to a gratuitous epilogue, and it plays into that Black Hawk Down mentality of disconnecting military valor from the politics that are served by that valour. At its best, though, K-19 is a suspenseful film that sheds light on a little-known part of our recent history"

David Bruce (Hollywood Jesus) examines how the story shows God working great things for the world by changing the heart of one man. "The centerpiece in the film is the transformation of the Harrison Ford character from a heartless institutional man to a caring individual. Somehow God is in the backdrop of history working things out. This film illustrates in graphic detail just how close we came to blowing up Planet Earth. In every crisis event God is there, truly. Otherwise humanity would simply no longer exist."