|K-19: the Widowmaker|
|Written by Tara O'Shea|
|Tuesday, 10 December 2002|
In 1961, the Soviets launched their first nuclear submarine, the K-19, against the advice of the ship's captain, Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson). The construction and launch was rushed, the ship outfitted with inferior parts, and the crew believed the mission to be cursed. The Navy assigns Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford, who also served as an executive producer) to command the boat's shakedown cruise, with the plan of launching a test missile in the Arctic before moving to a strategic spot within striking distance of the United States.
From the get-go, the mission is fraught with tension. Polenin, who remains onboard as Vostrikov's XO, is beloved by his crew, who remain fiercely loyal to him. Vostrikov pushes the crew almost mercilessly and, in comparison to father-figure Polenin, seems soulless and cruel, driving members of the crew to mutiny. The struggle for control of the K-19 between these two very different men is thrown into high gear when, after the successful launch of the test missile, a seal ruptures in the reactor and the resultant coolant leak threatens to create a complete meltdown which would lead to global thermonuclear war.
Meticulously researched and exquisitely paced, "K-19: The Widowmaker" tells the story of how seven men gave their lives to avert Word War III and how that story was then subsequently hushed by the Soviet Communist government for almost 30 years. Director Kathryn Bigelow ("Strange Days") grounds the story in the characters, and at every point we find ourselves on the edge of our seats despite the fact that we already know that war was averted. It is above all the story of two men and their crew -- and how the choices they made out of loyalty to their homeland and their captain made them a family.
The film is a technical marvel and features some completely unnerving effects depicting the effects of radiation on members of the crew. Bigelow gets excellent performances out of her cast, particular the young men playing the sub's crew, many of whom had never acted before. Christopher Kyle's screenplay is a delicate balance of classic submarine thriller along the lines of "The Hunt for the Red October" and very human drama. "K-19" may never gain the enormous popularity of "Red October," but it is a soundly made film that tells a compelling story.
Visually, the disc is excellent. The transfer is crisp and clean and appears to be completely defect-free. Flesh tones and black levels are consistent throughout. Shooting sets that were built exactly to scale and exact duplicates of the real K-19 submarine, Jeff Cronenweth's cinematography makes an excellent transition from the big screen. Anyone who saw the film in theatres should have no worries about the quality of the disc.
The 5.1 sound mix is used to great effect, particularly in conveying the ambient sounds of the sub creaking and groaning as it dives. All the speakers are kept active, particularly in the crisis scenes, aiding the reality of the film through auditory experience by having layers of sound built upon the steady hum of engine noise. Dialogue is crisp and clear and easy to understand, and the score comes through beautifully, particular in the second half of the film. “K-19” has an excellent mix for an action movie of this kind, which lends a lot of weight to the film in terms of letting the audience get lost in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a Cold War-era sub.
The disc contains a feature-length commentary from Bigelow and Cronenweth, which details not only the production of the film, but a great deal of the research that went into the picture. While not the liveliest of commentaries, it is incredibly informative and the reverence and depth of emotion Bigelow has for the film's subject never dips into being pretentious or annoying, but instead shows her respect for the material and her drive to recreate the events of the film as realistically as possible.
The making-of featurette included with the film contains the standard array of cast and crew interviews, but the true worth of the special is in the tremendous amount of research which went into the production, down to retro-fitting a sub from the same era into a seaworthy clone of the K-19. In an era where digital effects are more common, the decision to go with practical effects and not use a CGI sub is covered in-depth and in detail. For any submarine movie as well as Cold War espionage thriller buffs, the special features alone are worth the price of the disc, as the crew had unparalleled access to materials and locations in Russia. Rounding out the special features are two short featurettes covering some of the model effects and impressive prosthetic makeup effects.
Overall, "K-19" should be a huge hit with fans of the small but popular submarine movie genre, and fans of Ford and Neeson will be thrilled with the strong and layered performances from both stars.