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Sunday, April 16, 2017

Director Report Card: Kathryn Bigelow (2002)

7. K-19: The Widowmaker

“K-19: The Widowmaker” is a movie that came out not long after I truly became a serious movie fan. I remember the movie being a box office flop, failing to make back its budget. I even read a few reviews at the time. Mostly, I remember the poster, with its image of Harrison Ford sternly starring out over a submarine. Somehow, I only recently discovered that Kathryn Bigelow directed the film. This is probably due to “K-19's” financial failure and middling reviews causing it to slip quickly into obscurity. Don't blame me too much. When it comes to Bigelow's interesting contribution to cinema, this one doesn't get mentioned very often.

In the midst of the Cold War, the Soviet Union prepares the K-19. It is the country's first nuclear submarine, armed with ballistic missiles. On its first mission, the submarine is given to Captain Vostrikov, a man with a troubled family history and undying loyalty to the Soviet Union. This bothers Polenin, the one who has been captaining the ship for some time. Soon, the K-19 hits serious problem. After breaking through the Arctic ice, the submarine suffers a series of reactor problems. Men become sick and the submarine is on the verge of exploding. The problems begin to pile out, the crew questioning Vostrikov's leadership as their lives become more endangered.

Before we get any deeper into discussing “K-19: The Widowmaker,” there's something unavoidable that I have to talk about: What the fuck is up with the Russian accents in this movie? I know it's the default in American movies that all foreigners speak English, usually with a British accent. “K-19” defies that last part by having most of its actors speak with an setting appropriate Russian accent... Badly. Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson both struggle to hid their natural vocalization. Ford often gives up for long stretches. When he actually attempts the accent, he adds some preposterous sounding inflections to his words. Neeson at least maintains the accent but it still sounds like a weird mixture of his natural Scottish accent and his usually pretty good American accent. I don't usually get hung on details like this but it's seriously distracting in “The Widowmaker.”

For years, mainstream filmmakers portrayed everyone from Soviet Russian as totally evil, villains that needed to be banished by red-blooded, American heroes. With this in mind, “K-19” becomes something of an anomaly. It's a Cold War movie told from the perspective of the Russians. The only American characters we see are a briefly glimpsed Navy photographer and faded faces in an old newsreel. Telling a Cold War era story from the other side could've resulted in a interesting reversal, showing American audience how the other side lived. Instead, the nationality of its characters is of only passing interest to “The Widowmaker.” This is a typical submarine movie and the origins of the people on board only come up briefly.

“K-19's” earlier scenes focus on a beleaguered submarine crew, operating on a seemingly cursed vessel. The peaks inside life on a sub is the film's most compelling attributes. Crew members are called for constant drills. The men are quickly exhausted by the work load. This leads to more mistakes. A guy falls and bashes his head, an unusually bloody moment. Another crewmen gets his hands twisted by a chain. Even beyond these dramatic scenes, the reality of life underwater is also interesting. The submarine crew are only allowed to bath once a week. Instead, a doctor passes a soap soaked rag around the bunks. Later, we see a revealing moment of the crew watching a propaganda reel, showing racial unrest and violence in America.

These scenes in the first act are interesting but, about a half-hour in, the film's pace hits a snag and never recovers. Captain Vostrikov has the submarine perform a dangerous maneuver, diving to extremely low depths before quickly resurfacing through Arctic ice. Soon afterwards, K-19 is halted by a number of technical issues. The film is no longer about a submarine working under the orders of a possibly unstable captain. Instead, it becomes about a crew attempting to hold together a sub that is constantly cracking apart. The movement literally goes out of the story, the pace grinds to a stop, and the viewer's interest quickly fades. Submarine maintenance is not as exciting as adventures beneath the sea.

It took me about an hour before I figured out that “The Widowmaker” wouldn't going anywhere else soon. The movie is actually about what happens when an inexperienced crew has to repair a damaged nuclear submarine. So what does happen? The short answer is: Everybody gets radiation poisoning. Long scenes are devoted to men in flimsily insulated suits wandering into the sub's radioactive core. After working in the irradiated water, they walk out vomiting. One man stays inside so long, his entire body gets covered with severe burns. Even after the power source is repaired, “K-19” keeps this focus on submarine maintenance. There are fires, malfunctions, and yet more problems with the damn uranium. The result is a movie so detail oriented, it becomes tedious.

One assumes “K-19” got bankrolled because of Harrison Ford, one of those internationally beloved movie stars that usually get people in the theaters, starred in it. Aside from the shifting accent, Ford's performance is decent. Sadly, the script does him no favors. Throughout most of “K-19,” the film plays with Captain Vostrikov being mentally unstable. He gives the crew tricky orders, pushing the submarine past its limits. Some of the mechanical failures that get people killed are indirectly his fault. He seems psychotically obsessed with putting his country's needs above the needs of his soldiers. Eventually, Vostrikov winds up in handcuffs and is threatened with mutiny. So, is Ford's character crazy? The answer will disappoint you! “The Widowmaker's” last act reverses course, suddenly treating Ford like he's the movie's hero. He's thinking clearly. He's saving the day. The soldiers support him. When the hell did this change happen? Was this Ford's idea or some weird editing mishap?

Though the film is about the crew of a ship, “K-19” isn't really an ensemble film. Most of the other crew members are thinly developed. A few get some distinguishing attributes. One has a pet rat. One carries around a picture of his girlfriend back home. Another has a goofy mustache. Otherwise, the movie is mostly about Ford's Vostrikov and Liam Neeson's Captain Polenin. Neeson plays his part as a stern voice of authority who is easily frustrated. His establishing character moment, in the first scene, has him literally growing at a bit of bad news. Neeson is fine, bringing occasional moments of intensity to the part, even if his character is mostly tugged along by the direction of the story.

“K-19: The Widowmaker” drags on for over two hours. After a countless number of mechanical problems and failures, the Russians allow themselves to be rescued by the Americans. It's a fairly anticlimactic conclusion but the movie still isn't done yet. An extended, maudlin epilogue is tagged on, detailing the secrecy surrounding the events. We're informed most of the crew died of radiation poisoning, via on-screen text, an inelegant device. In the final scene, Ford outright states the movie's themes. That any soldier willing to die for his country or comrades is a hero, regardless of affiliation or origin. It's a point worth making, I suppose, but it takes a slog of a film out an even lower down note.

What about the direction? Kathryn Bigelow can usually be counted on for a stylish looking film. There are a couple of scenes that come to mind. The entirety of the submarine is always shot in glaring colors. Most of the time, it's a searing red which certainly brings to mind the tension of the situation. Scenes close to the radioactive core feature darker colors: Sickly blues, glowing purples, muted silvers. Bigelow's speedy editing causes a few sequences to move along, such as when the crew members are frantically complying with another exercise. But too much of “The Widowmaker” is too still, further dragging the pacing down. The movie also features some rather dated looking CGI, for an extra kicker.

I do like the score though. Klaus Badelt's music clearly recalls Basil Poledouris' iconic “Hunt for Red October” score. As Poledouris did, Badelt employs traditional Russian opera, creating a grand soundscape for the film. There's even a puckish sense of humor to this choice. A scene devoted to the Russian seaman mooning an American helicopter is also set to this music. Badelt's score also features some more mournful moments, combining traditional mariner themes with heavier horns and plucking strings. I wasn't a big fan of the movie but I would recommend giving Badelt's score a listen.

The real story behind the K-19 was probably worth telling. I don't how many mechanical failures, deaths, and fires are regular for a submarine. It sure seems like the K-19 had a lot. As the movie suggest, maybe the submarine was cursed. Bigelow's film approaches this interesting topic in an unusually dry way. The focus on mechanical detail frequently bores the audience. A story that gets stranded around the same time the sub does irritates the viewer more. An overly long run time is the killing blow. In retrospect, the film's box office failure is not surprising. Not even Harrison Ford's star power could save this snooze. “K-19: The Widowmaker” deserves to be forgotten in the cinematic sea. [Grade: C-]

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