Submarine movies form a specific sub-section in the genre of war films. From the black-and-white "Run Silent, Run Deep" to the awesome "Das Boot", movies about submerged boats have given us landlubbers a taste of the claustrophobic (yet thrilling) chaos of depending on only sonar blips and pings to navigate through murky waters. These films all share certain standards--hulls crumbling under the pressure of tons of water; problems that necessitate sailors to hurtle from one end of the ship to the other with a camera following their every move; scenes that demonstrate how little space there is in a submarine that even the officers have to crowd one another.
The sturdy, tough "K-19" follows in the footsteps of superb entertainments such as "The Hunt for Red October" and "Crimson Tide". However, the story that it tells is based on a real-life incident involving the first nuclear sub in the Soviet Navy. The K-19 nearly experienced a reactor meltdown while on its first sea launch. Had the reactor exploded, a nearby American destroyer would've been decimated, and given the high tensions that colored American-Soviet relations, nuclear war probably would have occurred.
The film begins with a failed trial missile launch aboard K-19 that leads Moscow to think that Captain Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson) is not good enough of a Soviet to command the ship. Military leaders select Captain Alexi Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) to prepare K-19 for the sea, and Polenin finds himself demoted to executive officer. A variety of calamities results in numerous deaths before the sub is even sent to fight the West, and it certainly eases no one's mind when the champagne bottle doesn't break during the ship's christening.
The central focus of the story is that of the aforementioned nuclear reactor. During K-19's maiden voyage, a reactor pipe leaks water coolant, and the crew must work under extreme conditions in order to ensure that the reactor does not explode. With inadequate chemical suits, teams of two head inside the reactor chamber itself. When the men emerge from the chamber, their skins have actually begun to decompose. Radiation sickness causes them to vomit profusely, and some even go blind despite working in the chamber for less than half an hour. Despite the PG-13 rating given to the movie, I suggest to parents that they carefully consider whether or not their children should see "K-19", for the harrowing images of radiation sickness will haunt them for days.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (helmer of "Strange Days", one-time Gap model, and one-time wife of James Cameron), "K-19" works as a thriller despite the fact that we know the outcome (the world didn't burn with World War III, right?). There is a race against the clock to cool the reactor, and there is the cloud of possible war sitting on the characters. Since the radio transmitter has been damaged, there is also the possibility that the Soviet high command might interpret a lack of communications as an intention to defect on Vostrikov's part. The taut pacing creates an atmosphere of mounting tension, and the movie made me feel very grateful that competent, dedicated professionals managed to avert a disaster.
Bigelow also gets great mileage out of her cast, especially from Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. Ford and Neeson are stars of impressive stature, and they credibly make their fight for control of the ship about duty rather than about ego. Peter Sarsgaard ("Boys Don't Cry") does a fine job playing a green engineer straight out of the academy who manages to become a hero after first buckling under the pressures of his job.
"K-19" is one of the first cinematic productions made with the participation of the National Geographic Society's newly-created film production arm. Thus, there is a great amount of attention paid to the details. Yet, the movie never gets bogged down in those details, so it feels both authentic and realistically tense. The real-life dynamic between the captain and his executive officer may not have occurred the way it is depicted in "K-19", but the results ring true.
"K-19" may not be one of the best films of 2002, but it certainly is one of the best submarine movies ever.
I very much enjoyed looking at the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image of "K-19" on DVD. The smooth, crisp picture reminded me of when I saw the movie on the big screen. The video transfer features strong, solid colors, and the Russian winter landscape hasn't looked this formidable since "Doctor Zhivago". Some scenes appear to be on the soft side, and there are a few minute digital drop-outs. Otherwise, "K-19" looks pretty spectacular on DVD.
Modern-day submarine movies--even bad ones like "U-571"--are a delight to experience via a good sound system. The "K-19" DVD gave my home theatre a robust work-out. The Dolby Digital 5.1 English track gave my subwoofer plenty of stomach aches when the submarine descends to crush depth. Alarms ring from every direction when the nuclear reactor's temperature rises above safe levels. The haunting music score surrounds the room via smooth imaging across the speakers.
DD 2.0 surround English and DD 2.0 surround French tracks have also been included on the DVD. Optional English subtitles as well as English closed captions support the audio. Selectable French subtitles appear when onscreen text is displayed
Perhaps because it fared poorly at the American box office (or perhaps because Paramount limited its financial risk with the venture), "K-19" arrives on DVD with only a couple of standard-issue bonuses.
The primary extra is an audio commentary by Kathryn Bigelow and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth. Both commentators are pleasantly conversational, and they provide listeners with plenty of background information concerning their exhaustive research into the history of the K-19. However, since "K-19" the movie isn't a ground-breaking achievement (though it is a very good one), the commentary is only a decent experience and not a great one.
"The Making of ‘K-19: The Widowmaker'" was shown on TV (probably HBO, Showtime, or Cinemax) in order to promote the movie. If you've seen the movie, then you've seen all the story points that are re-hashed in this promo.
The "Exploring the Craft: Make-Up Techniques" featurette looks at the creation of radiation sickness and aging make-up. Both the "Breaching the Hull" and the "It's in the Details" featurettes look at how the filmmakers applied their research to the making of the movie. To me, the most interesting aspect of these featurettes was learning about how the production team created the blue hues of the contaminated coolant in the reactor core. Finally, there's a theatrical trailer.
A glossy insert provides chapter listings.
Regardless of sex, Kathryn Bigelow is one of the best action directors working today. She has a fine sense of how to create kinetic camera movements, and she knows how to keep things moving. While I have always admired her craftsmanship, "K-19" is actually the first movie of hers that I liked. "K-19" deserved neither the critical bashing that it received nor its ignominious box office fate. I recommend the movie as a visceral way of learning about an important event in history.