Home/Blog       Faith       News and Politics       About This Site

Summer action flick 2002

K-19: The Widowmaker
Humanizing soldiers on ‘the other side’

Harrison Ford True story: in 1961 the accident-prone Soviet navy, desperate to keep up in the Cold War arms race with the US, hastily launched a nuclear submarine armed with ballistic missiles, shortly after the Americans sent their first such boat to the Atlantic with its missiles aimed at Moscow and Leningrad. Plagued by bad luck, with workers dying during its construction, on its first voyage the sub K-19 successfully launched a test missile from the Arctic ice pack to show the Americans what they’ve got, but then one of the reactor cooling pipes broke, irradiating the crew and threatening to cause a meltdown. (This not only would have killed the submariners but, in the movie version, the boat was close to a NATO base, and the disaster very well could have triggered a nuclear holocaust.) Several sailors were sent into the reactor room to try to fix the leak, and the results are gruesomely depicted in this re-enactment.

Top secret for decades — the survivors weren’t allowed to talk about it until the USSR was gone — I don’t know if this accident was known to the US all along. In the movie an American destroyer and helicopter spot the disabled sub on the surface and even offer help (this never happened).

Although this film has been attacked by Russians, including the actual survivors of the K-19 disaster, as insulting and stereotyping, K-19 seems pretty close to a thinking-person’s summer action flick (there’s zero sex and more happens than ‘stuff blows up’): it has military men from a onetime political enemy of the US as heroes and, what I think is the best aspect of the movie, it shows the brutal reality of what the military and soldiering are all about. Namely, the lives of the individual soldiers don’t matter — only the mission does. (‘An Army of One’ is the stupidest, most dishonest recruiting slogan ever invented.) You are disposable, and a successful officer is one who can knowingly send men to their deaths. True no matter which government the soldiers are working for/conscripted by.

When in 2000 the Kursk sank in the Barents Sea and the Russian authorities put off getting Western help, I realized they would let their sailors drown rather than reveal any secrets about the boat. The US military would do the same thing.

Harrison Ford, still fit and handsome at 60, plays a perfect soldier, Capt. Alexei Vostrikov, willing to risk his men’s safety to get his assigned mission done. According to the true account of the captain, Capt. Nikolai Zateyev, the following never happened, but the movie sets up a classic personality clash between this martinet and the men’s favorite officer, former Capt. Mikhail Polenin, played by world-class actor Liam Neeson. Polenin shows the humanity, the concern for his men’s lives, that is considered virtuous outside the military. Military and civilian sensibilities clash.

Ultimately, if you think about it, you can see that the blowhard military man is right — accomplishing his mission and sacrificing his men to do so will perhaps save the millions of people he is trying to protect in his country. But viscerally the civilian movie audience side with the officer with his heart on his sleeve.

Russian criticism has called this conflict unrealistic, and it seems to be a plot device lifted from most of the better fictional American war movies, from 12 O’Clock High and The Caine Mutiny to Fail-Safe and Crimson Tide. I can’t imagine Russian officers emoting like these guys, either, but then again it was a desperate situation.

Still, the real story is exciting enough without Hollywoodization.

(I’m told that last year’s Enemy at the Gates about Stalingrad — which I did see and enjoy — at least got its clichés from old Russian war movies.)

All the characters are Russians and the movie is all in English with actors putting on accents, including Ford. I like his reasons for doing so: he seems to know he doesn’t do it very well but he explained in one interview he wanted to lose himself in the character, to make clear the movie is supposed to be about Russians, not about him. He gets a gold star for trying.

A lot of attention was paid to detail — all the dials and signs are in Russian, the uniforms are authentic and the moviemakers even got hold of an old Soviet sub to use. It’s ironic that Russians say they got the people all wrong.

This movie might have been better if, like the greatest of all sub movies, Das Boot, the makers had decided to use a cast speaking the actual language and add subtitles. Such also may have helped deflect Russian criticism that the movie paints a false picture of the Russian navy and people.

Interestingly, NBC critic Gene Shalit, who likes this movie, says it was made with the cooperation of the Russian government!

What I hope viewers realize from seeing K-19 this summer, in this time of ‘war fever’ in America, is, even though the accident happened in peacetime, how evil war is, and that countries never should casually dispose of men’s lives this way again. Even so, the self-sacrifices soldiers make can be truly heroic.

Trivia: famous playwright Tom Stoppard had a go at doctoring the script. And unlike the ageing Ford, the real captain, Zateyev, was only my age — mid-30s — at the time of the accident.

Nice Touch: one engine-room sailor is apparently an Orthodox believer with an Old Ritual-style cross. ‘Religious icons are forbidden’, he is told when caught with it.

Спасибо! Thanks for reading.