K-19: The Widowmaker

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K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER, a big-scale Cold War thriller, was based—with standard “dramatic license”—on the disastrous trial-run mission of the Soviet Union’s first ballistic missile nuclear sub. K-19 was seemingly jinxed from before it left dock by accidents, personnel trouble and equipment shortages. Design flaws ultimately saw the voyage  undone on July 4th, 1961, which came perilously close to being a much less-joyful Independence Day, one with much bigger fireworks.

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Harrison Ford plays the stiff-necked new captain sent in to take the con from Liam Neeson, who’d been the commander—and crew’s favorite—but now will serve as executive officer under less-jolly Ford. Stress tests are part of the job, but the proverbial red line is crossed when the reactor begins to have trouble. Among the emergency repair dilemmas, aside from deadly radiation frying crew members, is the danger that the cooking subs warheads might detonate, taking out a nearby U.S. destroyer and inadvertently starting WW3.

A full-scale interior set with exacting detail was created and a modified Soviet-era submarine as well as a Canadian sub and destroyer were employed.  Elaborate special effects (breaking through the ice pack) and makeup (the hideous radiation burns) are brought to bear. Kathryn Bigelow’s direction ensures that the tension mounts, in the manner of submarine flicks at least as far back as Run Silent, Run Deep (officers arguing), and the acting is uniformly taut.

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All in, a more-than-serviceable entry from the Men-Being-Brave School (extra-brave), somewhat handicapped by the pedestrian screenplay from Christopher Kyle, and a final segment that sees fit to lay on the “hero” element a bit too much, augmented by Klaus Badelt’s insistent score. Reviews were mixed, and then it sank like a depth-charged U-boat when global grosses in 2002 only came to $65,716,000 against a production cost of $90,000,000 (fully 22% of that was Ford’s salary alone).

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With Peter Sarsgaard, Steve Nicolson, Ravil Isyanov, Christian Camargo, John Shrapnel, Joss Ackland, Sam Spruell.  Shot in Canada. 138 minutes.

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