REVIEW: K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER

CAST
Harrison Ford (Blade Runner)
Liam Neeson (Batman Begins)
Sam Spruell (The Hurt Locker)
Peter Stebbings (bates Motel)
Roman Podhora (Final Destination 5)
Ravil Isyanov (Alias)
Peter Starsgaard (Jarhead)
Donald Sumpter (Game of Thrones)
In 1961, the Soviet Union launches its first ballistic missile nuclear submarine, the K-19. The ship is led by Captain Alexei Vostrikov, aided by executive officer Mikhail Polenin. Polenin, the original captain, and the crew have served together for some time but Vostrikov’s appointment is alleged to have been aided by his wife’s political connections. During his first inspection, Vostrikov discovers the submarine’s reactor officer to be drunk and asleep on duty. Vostrikov sacks the officer and orders Polenin to request a replacement. The new reactor officer, Vadim Radtchenko, arrives direct from nuclear school having just been fresh from the naval academy, annoying Polenin who thinks Vostrikov was too punitive on the former reactor officer who was competent despite his momentary lapse of judgment. Also, during the preparation period for the sub’s launch, the ship’s medical officer is killed when struck by an oncoming truck, and is subsequently replaced by the command’s foremost medical officer, an army officer who has graciously offered himself in the submarine’s time of need, but also privately admits to Vostrikov that as an army officer he has never been out to sea and suffers from motion sickness. During the K-19’s official launch, the bottle of champagne fails to break when it strikes the bow; the sailors nervously glance at each other due to this customary sign of bad luck.
The crew’s performance improves and Vostrikov decides to carry out the K-19’s first mission, which is to surface in the Arctic and fire an unarmed (“test”) ballistic missile. After that, the K-19 will patrol a zone in the Atlantic within range of New York and Washington D.C. just in case the U.S. launches an attack to the Soviet Union. As a test of the sub’s endurance, Vostrikov orders the K-19 to submerge past its maximum operational depth of 250 meters to its “crush depth” (300 meters), then surface rapidly at full-speed to break through the Arctic pack-ice which he estimates to be no more than one metre thick. Polenin regards this maneuver as dangerous and, during the surfacing procedure, storms off the bridge. After scraping along the underside of the ice, the K-19 finally breaks through and surfaces with no apparent damage. The crew is both relieved and exhilarated by Vostrikov’s bold maneuver and the test missile is launched successfully.
As the K-19 sails southwards to begin the second part of its mission, a pipe carrying coolant to the reactor cooling system springs a leak and then bursts completely. Polenin and Vostrikov are informed that once the nuclear reactor reaches 1000 °C, the nuclear reactor will explode and most likely plunge the world into a nuclear war. The frightening possibility prompts the crew to solve the problem. The control rods are inserted to stop the reactor, but without coolant the reactor temperature continues to rise rapidly. Polenin and Radtchenko are shocked to discover that back-up coolant systems have not been installed. Vostrikov orders the K-19 to surface so that he may contact fleet command to inform them of the accident and await orders. But upon surfacing they discover the long-range transmitter on the conning tower is damaged and they are unable to contact fleet headquarters – Vostrikov assumes, ruefully, his surfacing maneuver in the Arctic caused the antenna damage.
An engineering team reluctantly have to enter the reactor to make repairs, and produce a makeshift coolant system to get the reactor temperature down. Polenin discovers the submarine has been provided with chemical suits rather than suits to protect against radiation. He nonetheless tells the first team that the suits will protect them. The first group emerges from the reactor compartment vomiting and heavily blistered. The second team panics, but make their way in. The repairs succeed in cooling the reactor, but many are severely ill with radiation poisoning.
Vostrikov is informed that a helicopter is approaching; he and some of the crew climb out onto the deck, thinking a Russian ship has come to save them, only to discover that it is a US Navy helicopter from a nearby US destroyer. The destroyer is asking if the K-19 requires assistance. Vostrikov orders a reply in the negative; the men on the deck notice a crewman in the helicopter photographing them, and they drop their trousers and bare their buttocks at him. The helicopter flies away. Vostrikov refuses to allow the Americans anywhere near K-19. The US destroyer follows them at a discreet distance. Back in the Soviet Union, the Soviet government begins to have suspicions about the K-19 abandoning the mission following K-19’s failure to contact fleet headquarters about the condition of the mission.The submarine makes its way towards a group of diesel submarines in the south, but the pipework ruptures and the temperature begins to rise once again, forcing Vostrikov to dive the submarine and quell a mutiny. The second repair is a success, but the engineer has sustained more radiation than the previous teams and is certain to die. Captain Vostrikov drags him from the reactor. After that, the K-19 finally reaches to the location of the diesel submarines. However, the Soviet leadership order him to confine the crew on the submarine until a freighter can arrive to pick them up. Knowing that it would be too dangerous to keep the crew on K-19, Vostrikov orders the crew to be evacuated to the diesel submarines despite knowing he will most likely lose his command and be sent to a gulag. After the incident, Captain Vostrikov is tried for endangering the mission and disobeying a direct order, but Polenin comes to his defense, which resulted in his charges being dropped.
An epilogue shows an aged Captain Vostrikov in 1989, putting on his dress uniform in a small flat and catching a train to meet up with Polenin. It is exactly 28 years after the accident; the Berlin Wall is shown to be coming down. Vostrikov grumbles about the inconvenience but Polenin informs him this is the anniversary of the day they were rescued. The commanders enter a cemetery where a number of the surviving K-19 crewmen are gathered by a grave site. We learn that this is the first time the K-19 survivors have met since the incident. Vostrikov is visibly moved as he greets the men and informs them that he nominated the men now dead of radiation poisoning (28 in total) for the distinction of Hero of the Soviet Union, but was told they were not worthy of the title as they died not during war time, but as the result of an accident. The film ends with the moment when, years before, the whole crew took a group photograph in front of the submarine.
This is a well crafted, true story and Exposition of the cold war submariners’ duties. The unusual thing is that the Russians are depicted as the good guys. The editing, as signified by the pace of the film is superbly done. The claustrophobic aspects of the ship could have been boring but it was not the case. The two captains are shown as mutually distrusting at first but under duress begin to see the others point of view under the weight of an unreliable and dangerous vessel.

 

 

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