A landscape of bright ice slit by the black conning tower and peppered with small figures cavorting is breathtaking. 

K-19:  THE WIDOWMAKER

An Illusion review by Joan Ellis


                Itís hard to break new ground with a submarine movie.  The standard stuff is here in K-19:  The Widowmaker.  Cramped quarters, danger, the obligatory friction between the captain and his second in command, and the usual specter of mutiny.  Director/producer Kathryn Bigelow puts enough fire and brimstone into these elements to make a solid summer blockbuster, but two major problems undermine her efforts. 

                Harrison Ford, however you may feel about him, has become an American icon playing a U.S. president, a CIA agent, an adventurer, and a romantic lead.  It is simply too much of a leap to think of him as the accented captain of a Soviet submarine at the height of the Cold War in the early Ď60s.  By trying hard to lay aside all his Americanisms, Ford becomes wooden faced, his performance, expressionless.  Imagine Humphrey Bogart as a German U-boat captain with a German accent.  Both actors are too well known for their essential selves to play the enemy.  They arenít chameleons.

Liam Neeson, unhampered by an outsized national identity, can be credible in any role.  Here he plays second in command convincingly to Fordís tough Captain Vostrikov.  Polenin (Neeson) has been relieved of his command of a Russian sub assigned to launch a missile to scare the U.S. whose own Polaris subs are already sneaking under the oceans of the world.   Protesting the shoddy preparations and planning that endangered his men, Polenin injects humanity as counterpoint to Vostrikovís unrelieved devotion to duty and the Communist Party. 

The second undermining influence is not the fault of director Bigelow.  It is simply the discomfort of our times.  Watching the submarine succeed in launching its test missile is a real stomach cruncher in these times of global political confusion.  No Russian premier sits at the other end of the red hotline to discuss the problem with the American president.  The imagery of the clearly defined Cold War is especially chilling at a time when we donít even know the enemy.  It is no longer escapism to watch what happens when men are burned by radiation, no summer pleasure to think about a reactor imploding its way to probable global war . 

Nonetheless, memorable scenes abound.  The sub surfaces through a glacier where the men jump into a game of pickup football.  A landscape of bright ice slit by the black conning tower and peppered with small figures cavorting is breathtaking.  This is what sticks to the ribs.  There is about submarines the feeling that they are not in their rightful habitat, that if a boat goes underwater, it will sink.  In their stealth they are frightening and threatening, ominous weapons of war, ghostly loners.  The fine photography of their power to stalk and to spy and to fire sets us on edge.   This is a tense movie, and in a surely unintended way, itís a relief from reality to have to watch Harrison Ford in a fur hat.

 


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