Tuesday, November 4, 2008


You have to wonder what Harrison Ford had on his mind when he decided to produce and star in the new Cold War submarine saga "K-19: The Widowmaker." Clearly, this catastrophic but conventional expose about a true-life incident in 1961, suppressed by the Kremlin until 1989, boasts everything anybody could hope for in a gripping disaster epic. During their historic maiden voyage on the first Soviet nuclear sub, the skipper and crew struggle desperately to repair the cooling system in its reactor after it repeatedly breaks down. Happily, the Soviet skipper and crew of K-19 solved this crisis before a cataclysmic thermonuclear blast could have vaporized them and triggered World War III. Not since Lewis Milestone's "The North Star" (1943) or Jacques Tourneur's "Days of Glory" (1944) has Hollywood celebrated the Communist exploits of the Soviet Union in such a heightened heroic fashion. The zombies of Joseph McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, and anyone who championed the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s would rise from the dead and lynch the treasonous liberal revisionists who financed this better Red than dead yarn. Indeed, while this competently crafted, historically accurate, white-knuckled, undersea thriller won't win any Oscars, the filmmakers reveal a facet of the Cold War that few knew.

Cross the Gene Hackman & Denzel Washington submarine nail-biter "Crimson Tide" (1995) with the Jack Lemmon & Jane Fonda nuclear meltdown melodrama "The China Syndrome" (1979), and you have a pretty good idea what to expect from Christopher Kyle's testosterone-fueled screenplay. "K-19" opens as the Soviets commission their first atomic sub, so they can show the Kennedy administration that they can launch nuclear missiles at sea, too. Before the Russians take K-19 to sea, several construction workers die during freak accidents. Worse, the Kremlin replaces the commander, Capt. Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson of "Star Wars: Episode One"), with legendary Capt. Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford of "Air Force One"), and this last minute change of command enrages an already superstitious crew. Meanwhile, Vostrikov ignores bad omens galore, like the champagne bottle bouncing off the hull rather than shattering at the christening, and sets out to chart history. Not long after they dive beneath the waves, Vostrikov learns K-19 is far from being ship-shape. Nevertheless, like the Hackman skipper in "Crimson Tide," Vostrikov runs his crew ragged with drills to sharpen their response time to emergencies. Suddenly, the worse thing that can happen occurs--the nuclear reactor overheats. Valiantly, the crew manages to cool the reactor. Not long afterward, however, the reactor blows another gasket, and the submariners stage a mutiny as a U.S. Navy destroyer lurks on the horizon.

Director Kathryn Bigelow, whose credits include "Near Dark" (1987) and "Strange Days" (1995), adroitly piles one suspenseful situation atop another. Sixty-year old Harrison Ford makes a convincing but sympathetic Russian naval officer who refuses to scuttle the flagship of the Soviet fleet. Miraculously, despite its noble depiction of our former adversaries, "K -19: The Widowmaker" (*** out of ****) manages to keep you on the edge of your seat for most of its lengthy 138 minutes.

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