K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)

Historical thrillers are always a joy to watch. Throw in the military, some chaos and a submarine, and you’ve got yourself a winner. This is the story of K-19, a riveting, enchanting tale of real-life events surrounding a Russian submarine.

The movie stars Harrison Ford as captain of the then Soviet Union’s first nuclear sub, Captain Alexi Vostrikov. Set in 1961, the sub is launched at the peak of the Cold War. Considering its riveting nature, it is perhaps a surprise that K-19 doesn’t feature any war. 

Rather, it draws you into the cold, terse world of a submarine whose onboard nuclear reactor is about to meltdown. Conflict between Captain Vostrikov and the captain whom he replaced, Captain Polenin (played by Liam Neeson), and a growing sense of possible mutiny aboard the sub only serve to heighten the tension.

Character Development in K-19: The Widowmaker

Much to the dismay and anger of his adored crew, the charismatic and impressively talented Captain Polenin is replaced by a strict looking Captain Alexei Vostrikov. With tension brewing at breakneck pace, men suffer injuries during drills, and everything seizes to function properly. Worse still, there are no radiation suits available when there is a leak on the cooling system on one of the nuclear reactors. World War III could raise its ugly head if the bomb goes off. The men on board are tasked with repairing it, leaving them exposed to high radiation doses.

Scene Development in K-19: The Widowmaker

The K-19 is almost entirely filmed within the tight, compressed space of a submarine. With only a few minutes of the 2 hour-plus movie filmed outside the hull of The Widowmaker, Director Kathryn Bigelow does a great job of making the most of a little space. We feel the claustrophobia of the men aboard the ship, experiencing almost too literally the pressure they feel 300 meters under water.

Every once in a while, we are taken outside the sub’s hull and into the world of underwater life. It reminds us of exactly where we are, drawing us into the harsh reality of the pressure these young sailors feel as the reactor threatens to go ballistic. But the most time is spent filming the men whose story we follow, feeding us with their tension as they try to save their lives, and likely save the world from the blowback (literally and figuratively) of a Russian nuclear sub going off in international waters.

Final Thoughts

It is not common to find big-budget Hollywood movies produced entirely from the foreign perspective, and even more tricky for English actors to play an entire role using Russian accents. Without even a single role for an American character, K-19 treats the Soviets as characters viewers can identify with rather than enemies to be loathed.

While many viewers already recognize American actors like Ford and Neeson before the movie, they take on the accent challenge pretty well. Both actors, and all of the characters involved, are able to act really well under massive pressure, giving us a thriller that is intense as well as amazingly frightening.