It came as quite a surprise to me recently when I realised that I hadn't actually seen a new Harrison Ford movie on the big screen since 1989. This is a man, after all, who's been voted the greatest movie star of the 20th century, someone whose track record where the
box-office is concerned has few peers - and someone whom my generation spent their childhoods watching, either in the Star Wars franchise or as Indiana Jones. But somehow none of his 90s output ever lured me into the theatre. I mainly wanted to see his new film, K-19: The Widowmaker, because of the track-record of its
K-19 is directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who over the past fifteen years has been responsible for some of the most interesting and intelligent SF, horror, and action movies to come out of Hollywood. Sadly, her last couple of movies haven't done so well and with the
new film she seems to have taken a leaf from the book of her ex-husband James Cameron and entered the realm of true-life maritime disasters.
Russia, 1961: with the USA and USSR seemingly intent on forcing a nuclear confrontation, Captain Polenin (Liam Neeson) of the Soviet navy is struggling to ready his new vessel, the K-19, for sea trials. Believing he's ideologically suspect, the Kremlin impose another captain on the project - Captain Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), a strict disciplinarian. The ship acquires a reputation as being cursed, something which seems to be true as no sooner have they left harbour than the ship starts sinking! Fortunately it turns out the K-19
is a submarine and so this is not the drawback it might otherwise be. As Vostrikov starts running a punishing series of drills and tests on both sub and crew, warning signs from the nuclear reactor are overlooked - a mistake that will cost all on board dear...
One of the more interesting things about K-19 is that it's an American picture about Communist Russians, who were still supposedly the bad guys until a relatively short time ago. Their intrinsic Russian-ness is indicated by the cod-Slavic accents employed by everyone in
the movie and also by some fairly gratuitous vodka-drinking, caviar-guzzling, balalaika-playing and Cossack-dancing below decks, but the film's approach to their Communism is rather more subtle. The crew themselves are depicted first and foremost as heroic sailors without much in the way of ideological commitment (the ship's Commissar, on
the other hand, is pretty much a bad guy), let down by the Communist Party high-ups who send them out on their mission (and just so the audience knows they're villains, they're played by the British actors Joss Ackland and John Shrapnel). And while the crew are seen watching anti-American propaganda, this concerns things that every true-blue American dislikes about their country anyway: Richard Nixon and the Ku Klux Klan, rather than JFK and Disneyland.
But the nationality and politics of the crew are a fairly secondary consideration given the disaster that they're caught up in. Well, eventually caught up in: this is a long movie and the reactor doesn't really start doing its thing until about an hour into it. Prior to this there's a lot of material about the sub in dock and then the first sea trials, which ideally should have been the time to build the characterisations of the crew... but this doesn't really happen. The crew (all played by unknown actors) remain anonymous for the most part, and even Neeson and Ford can't give their characters too much depth. Still, Neeson gives a typically powerful performance.
Harrison Ford, on the other hand... well, for one thing he just doesn't convince as a Russian. Typecasting it may be, but that craggy (and now faintly grizzled) face seems as American as Monument Valley. Ford's never been the most nuanced performer at the best of times and here he never manages to bring the complex Vostrikov to life: he's not nasty enough as a Captain Bligh-type at the start of the film to make his conversion to a more human figure in the closing stages really interesting, and it wasn't until very near the end of the film that I warmed to him.
Ford's performance sums up much of K-19. I found myself thinking 'hmm, this bit's like Crimson Tide... this bit's like Hunt for Red October...' It only really comes to life intermittently, but when it does it's truly gripping. The sequence where the young reactor team are forced to enter the lethally radioactive reactor compartment to effect repairs, without protective gear, is horrific and very powerful.
This is a frightening story, and one that deserves to be told. But this treatment of it is perhaps too worthy and reverential. Bigelow directs with her customary muscular panache, the film looks suitably lavish, and the script has a flair for the telling details of submariner life. However, K-19: The Widowmaker is too often drab and over familiar to really succeed as a movie. By Bigelow's admittedly high standards, this is sub-par.