Inspired by actual events long classified by the Soviet Union, K-19: The Widowmaker takes moviegoers back to the Cold War. 1961. President Kennedy. And the nuclear arms race. The Soviet Navy is frantically trying prove to the U.S. that it has nuclear missile-launch capability from sea. And in its haste, the powers-that-be prematurely order the nuclear submarine K-19 out of dry-dock to launch a test missile. The launch, while hair-raising, is successful, but nuclear disaster looms as the vessel traverses the North Atlantic to patrol the U.S. Eastern Seaboard.
Told from the Soviets' perspective, the story pits the boat's captain (Alexi Vostrikov) and executive officer (Mikhail Polenin) against each other as orders are second-guessed and loyalties scrutinized. While not exactly a unique plot device when it comes to submarine movies (à la Crimson Tide), Liam Neeson and Harrison Ford manage to extract a few unexpected gems from that friction. The onscreen mood quickly settles into a taut sense of dread as the nuclear reactor malfunctions and the core temperature starts rising. Men sacrifice their lives, exposing themselves to huge quantities of radiation, hoping to save their boat. And maybe save the world. Because what's at stake is more than a submarine crew. Tensions are so high between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that a nuclear blast in the Atlantic may well have triggered violent responses from both sides. Vostrikov and Polenin shoulder the weight of that possibility. And when communication is cut off with Central Command, the decisions are theirs alone to make.
positive elements: K-19 tells the story of sailors, not politicians. It is therefore possible to give high praise to those submariners for serving their country (sometimes sacrificing their lives) with honor, dignity and courage. Even when the crew doesn't completely agree with Vostrikov's methods, most of them carry out his orders without reservation. Those who do not are portrayed negatively. "I lost my position, not my self-respect," Polenin tells one offending officer. "You have lost both."
spiritual content: A crucifix strung onto a necklace becomes a focal point for a subtle nod to the power of religious belief. Early on, a sailor is reprimanded for wearing the "religious icon," but when the going gets tough, the officer who criticized him places the piece of jewelry into the man's hand, implying that now he too, thinks God has a place aboard a Soviet sub.
sexual content and nudity: Joking about the damage radioactivity can do, one sailor tells another to wrap his privates in tinfoil, speculating about how long it would take for his "torpedo" to fall off. Sailors pull down their pants and moon an American helicopter crew. A few sailors are seen completely nude (from a distance) while their bodies are being decontaminated.
violent content: Before the sub leaves dry-dock, a supply truck runs over and kills the medical officer. That incident, along with a number of other construction deaths lead the crew to dub the boat "The Widowmaker." A sailor's hand is mangled in a chain during a drill. Another's head is lacerated and he is knocked unconscious. Steep dives and a collision with an ice pack toss the sub's crew around, injuring some. Exposure to radiation causes men to vomit and generates severe burns on their skin. When one man paralyzed with fear can't perform his duties, another crewmember slaps him across the face to snap him out of it. A fire roars through a compartment killing several sailors (none of their deaths are shown). Pistols are pointed and waved, but never fired.
crude or profane language: At most a couple of mild profanities. An honest-to-goodness military action movie without vulgarity!
drug and alcohol content: Alcohol appears more than a few times. Sometimes it's consumed socially, sometimes as medicine. In one scene a man is relieved of his duty because he is drunk. Several crewmembers smoke cigarettes.
conclusion: K-19 is a riveting ride to 300 meters beneath the waves. There's an amazing tale to tell, and director Kathryn Bigelow doesn't ever get distracted from her task. Of the film's 140 minutes, only a few are spent outside the hull of The Widowmaker, creating a kind of claustrophobia that makes viewers keenly aware of just how much pressure these sailors were under—literally and figuratively. Spending time showing the minutia of underwater life does more than lengthen the trip, it draws one into this strange world of iron hatches, sardine-can bunk beds and harsh artificial light.
As you look on in breathless horror, knowing that history makes it impossible for the story to end in holocaust, but somehow certain that it still will, you long for the tale to be fully true, to honor those souls lost and revere the ones remaining. But you just can't bring yourself to trust what your eyes are beholding. Indeed, Hollywood's persistent "inventiveness" when it comes to fact, especially when it tackles little-known corners of history (as did the recent Windtalkers), has forced us all to be on our guard against the "re-creation" of truth.
"This film isn't about Russians, but about how Americans want to see Russians," says Igor Kurdin, who heads up a group of retired submariners in St. Petersburg, Russia. Indeed, Russian newspaper Izvestia is reporting that Veterans' groups there are determined to sue the filmmakers because of what they call inaccuracies. Specifically referenced are the portrayals of submariners drinking and the conflict between the captain of the vessel and the executive officer.
History is fact. But its telling is in the tone of the teacher. And here, the teacher is Hollywood.