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Monday, June 30, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Starring: Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sarsgaard
Domestic Gross: $35,168,677

One of the stranger things about growing older, at least in terms of the way that you engage with pop culture, is watching as the icons of your youth and adolescence fade out of popularity. Sometimes this is a process so gradual that you hardly notice it, and sometimes it's so abrupt that you're left scratching your head and wondering how the decline could have happened so fast. When I was growing up, Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise were the movie stars, the two actors who could seemingly do no wrong when it came to box office success, give or take a Regarding Henry or a Random Hearts. Ford was a force to be reckoned with through the 1980s and 1990s, a star of three franchises and a bunch of successful stand alone pictures, but since 2001 he hasn't had a bona fide hit other than an Indiana Jones film that most people wish he'd never made, and the box office disappointments have become the norm. That streak started in earnest with 2002's K-19: The Widowmaker, though in fairness to the film it probably would have sunk at the summer box office even if it had been released in the midst of Ford's hot streak since it was all wrong for a summer movie, particularly a "Harrison Ford summer movie."

Based on a true story, K-19 is set in 1961 and follows the Captain and crew of the ill-fated Soviet submarine of the same name. Ford stars as Alexei Vostrikov, the newly appointed Captain of the submarine with a lot to prove thanks to his father's checkered past within the Communist party and the rumor that he's been appointed to his current position due solely to his wife's political connections. The submarine's former Captain, Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), becomes Vostrikov's executive officer, though many of the crew members make it clear to him that he'll always be the real Captain as far as they're concerned. After a series of bad omens, including the submarine's doctor being hit by a truck and the champagne bottle failing to break at the launch, the K-19 sets out to sea for its trials, including the testing of an unarmed ballistic missile in the Arctic. Though tensions are high in the sub due to the crew's difficulty in adjusting to Vostrikov's rigid leadership, the missile tests go off without a hitch and the men prepare for their new orders. As they're carrying out those new orders, however, the cooling system of the sub's nuclear reactor fails and disaster seems imminent. As the crew attempts to deal with this problem, the sub is discovered by U.S. forces who offer assistance in exchange for surrender, which in turn prompts war room meetings back in Moscow to determine if Vostrikov is committing treason. As members of the crew discuss mutiny in order to force a surrender to the U.S. and escape the radiation that is spreading throughout the sub, a bigger problem emerges: if the K-19 remains above the surface much longer the reactor and the missiles aboard may explode, destroying the K-19 and the U.S. navy ship and acting as the trigger for all-out nuclear war.

I'd be curious to find out what the thought process was behind pushing K-19: The Widowmaker as a summer release (and bear in mind, this was a film released in the middle of July, not as a late August burn off). If the reasoning was nothing more than "Harrison Ford = summer money," then I'm going to have to assume that whoever made the decision not only didn't see K-19 first, but had no idea what it was even about. For one thing, even laying aside the fact that films about the military exploits of foreign nations rarely do well at the domestic box office, an all-American actor like Ford is a hard sell as a Russian submarine Captain (for the curious: yes, Ford does a light Russian accent here). For another, though the film has a bit of action and deals with the threat of potential warfare, it's an historical drama and not an action picture. It had the budget of a big summer blockbuster (reportedly around $100 million), but it's more of a prestige picture - albeit one that would have been doomed to failure had it been released in prestige season. K-19 isn't a bad film, but it isn't an especially good one either. You can see where the budget went as, in addition to a wonderfully shot sequence where the sub breaks through the Arctic ice in order to surface, director Kathryn Bigelow gets a lot of money shots of the submarine both above and below surface, but no matter how strong the film's technical achievements are, they can't mask the narrative failures.

Written by Christopher Kyle with a story by Louis Nowra, K-19 runs to a bloated 138 minutes and feels like it goes on for about 200. Parts of the film are harrowing, such as a sequence of scenes when the crew attempts to cool down the reactor, which results in several crew members sacrificing themselves by entering into the reactor room without radiation suits (the sub was supposed to come equipped with radiation suits, but their absence went unnoticed until it was too late) to put the makeshift cooling system to work. One of the men who is supposed to undertake the task is a young Reactor Officer just out of school and played by Peter Sarsgaard who completely freaks out after seeing what happens to the first two men who enter the reactor room. While Ford and Neeson each turn in solid performances as the strong, steady and stoic types, Sarsgaard steals the show as a character ill-equipped for crisis who just completely loses it when put to the test. He does discover his courage at the eleventh hour, but the soul crushing distress that he experiences first is one of the film's strongest elements and Sarsgaard's performance provides the piece with one of its most effective emotional punches.

K-19 is a film which, in bits and pieces, works incredibly well. Bigelow makes excellent use of the limited space inside the submarine, and though the stakes of the potential nuclear disaster are obviously enormous, she manages to keep the story to a human scale, to the men who are already dying from their exposure to radiation and the men who have been evacuated to the top of the surfaced sub and who are in terror of being called back down below. The push/pull of Ford and Neeson's characters provides the film with its dramatic backbone, but it's nothing that hasn't been explored in pretty much every other film set aboard a submarine, and the film's ending is something of a mess. The story ends well before the film does, with the submarine crisis resolving and then giving way to an abbreviated courtroom drama and then a flash forward to the Berlin Wall being torn down and then the survivors of the disaster gathering together to remember the dead. I can imagine a leaner cut of K-19 working quite well; the film has the elements necessary to be a perfectly serviceable drama, it would just need to jettison some of its dead weight. But, still, even if a ruthless editor had come in and hacked it down to its necessary parts, streamlining it and bringing it to a close before it could run out of gas, K-19: The Widowmaker was never going to be a summer blockbuster. It's too heavy, smacks too much of a history lesson (though, as with all "based on a true story" films, it takes some heavy liberties with the actual historical situation), and it asks you to root for the guys who, until ten years earlier, were one of Hollywood's go-to villains for the better part of 40 years. If the studio hadn't tried to shoehorn it into a place where it didn't belong, it might have become something - probably not something that would have recouped its production budget, but something that would have come closer than the $35 million it ultimately took in. Instead, not unlike its subject, this was a project doomed to failure.

Should It Have Been a Blockbuster?: See above.

1 comment:

Reel Popcorn Junkie said...

Agreed. K-19 has its moments, but overall it's a disappointment. Too bad, based on the incident that inspired its story.