Thursday, August 27, 2020

Reserved Seating Presents The Bomb Squad: K19: THE WIDOWMAKER

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who think K-19: The Widowmaker sounds like a burger at Hardees.

Rob: Welcome back to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob DiCristino.

Adam: And I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: Our series on unseen box office bombs continues with Kathryn Bigelow’s 2002 submarine actioner, K-19: The Widowmaker. Based on the real story of a near-catastrophic Soviet submarine disaster in the 1960s, the film stars Harrison Ford as Alexei Vostrikov, a stern taskmaster whose obsession with Party and Country earns him derision from the men under his charge. At the helm of the titular nuclear submarine on its first mission, Vostrikov butts heads with Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), K-19’s former captain, who was demoted for putting his men before his duty. Polenin objects to the new guy’s cold, impersonal leadership style and tries to maintain a positive atmosphere for the crew that still calls him “Captain.” When K-19’s nuclear reactor threatens to explode, the two men must broker a compromise between military duty and collective humanity.

K-19 is an odd one. It’s an incredibly elegant, angular, well-crafted film with an understated lead performance from Harrison Ford. He’s weaponizing his grunt and doing a lot of scowl acting, which I enjoyed quite a bit. Trouble is, most everything else in K-19 is a slog. Bigelow spends a good portion of the film acclimating us with processes and routines, including what felt like a solid half hour section in which Ford’s character runs drill after drill to test K-19’s mettle. I understand why Bigelow wants us to see how the mechanical monotony reflects the cockeyed command structure, but I was exhausted by the one hour mark, which made me less interested in watching Ford and Neeson’s dynamic develop in the last movement. But even with all that said, I don’t think it’s exactly fair to call K-19 boring. It’s austere, I guess. It’s severe and full of purpose. It held my attention in the same way a video on caulking bathroom tile would: I know each of these steps is important, and I respect the craft on display, but I never get invested in an emotional way.

I’ve got more thoughts, but they can wait. Adam, what did you think of K-19: The Widowmaker?
Adam: It’s fine. I had not seen K-19: The Widowmaker before last weekend, which is surprising because I was seeing just about every Harrison Ford movie leading up to 2002. What put me off then was Harrison Ford doing a Russian accent. In the trailer it’s bad, but not so much in the movie. Maybe I just got used to it?

Rob: To me, all the grunting and scowling was Ford finding a workaround to the accent.

Adam: Anyways, the thing I thought would be a distraction wasn’t a distraction. As you mentioned, there’s nothing wrong with K-19, it’s just unfortunately from a subgenre that has some stellar entries and K-19 pales in comparison to those submarine movies. The toe-to-toe between Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson takes an unexpected turn, which surprised me even though there wasn’t much left of interest to their dynamic after the surprise. The sequences with the crewmen trying to save the ship (and the world) but having to expose themselves to radiation were harrowing. That was the best stretch of K-19 to me. It’s a beautifully made movie. It just doesn’t have much of a pulse, which is surprising since it’s from Kathryn Bigelow, whose films usually have a lot of energy.

Do you think the movie suffers from not being about a ship at wartime? Submarine movies usually have specific beats to them with the naval battles being a chess match of sorts. In the case of K-19, the threat is bureaucratic and the damage has already been done. We’re just watching everything predictably unravel.

Rob: I think the lack of naval battle scenes definitely makes it harder to pull any excitement from the story. The core conflict is cerebral, political, and sits largely on the outskirts of the action. It’s a good conflict, don’t get me wrong! I like how Bigelow (with screenwriter Christopher Kyle) uses physical and psychological claustrophobia to up the tension. I would absolutely not want to be shoved in a Pringles can, sent miles under the ocean, and then made to take orders from someone I don’t trust with my life. You definitely feel the weight each of these men carries: With every action they take, they must consider their lives, their careers, their comrades’ lives, their families at home, the Soviet navy, the Soviet Union itself, and the global annihilation that might come from one mistake. Despite their training, no one is entirely sure how well they’ll hold up to pressure.

Adam: I would be the guy who jumped into the ocean because he couldn’t take it anymore. He was my favorite character because yeah, I’m not going back in Radiation Sub.
Rob: Speaking of that, one scene I really enjoyed was Soviet Propaganda Theater Time. During one of their rare breaks from drills, a political officer shows the men some newsreels highlighting the contradiction of American capitalism: Yes, the US wants them to think that everyone has a car, a house, and a nice family, but what they don’t want anyone to see is the poverty, injustice, and racial tensions that threaten to destroy it all. The men are encouraged to equate individualism with selfishness and keep their faith in The Party, at all costs. They’re then interrupted mid-lesson by — you guessed it — another drill. I know that making subtext into overt text is usually frowned upon, but I found that to be an effective dramatic choice in the larger context of the film.

After reading a few contemporary reviews, I have a question for you: Do you think K-19’s box office failure is attributable to 9/11, in any way? It’s released domestically in July of 2002, which, as one review noted, might not have been the best time for a movie about the Soviet Union. It’s incredibly critical of that government, of course. It’s pretty far from jingoistic. But maybe American audiences didn’t want to see Harrison Ford facing the horrors of war while they were watching their friends and family go off to Afghanistan.

Adam: It’s a fair assumption to think 9/11 had something to do with this film’s box office failure. At the time, people were gravitating more to escapist entertainment like Spider-Man, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, The Bourne Identity, Men in Black II, etc. It probably doesn’t help that K-19 was marketed as just another submarine movie. If it came out in the spring, it might have done better. It feels too serious for a summer movie but not serious enough to be an awards contender. My gut impression is that people were put off by Harrison Ford’s accent and a title that tells them nothing about the movie they’re about to see. It feels like homework despite being a decent enough movie.
Rob: As a big of a shrug as K-19 is, it might actually be my favorite movie we’ve covered so far in The Bomb Squad. I kind of root for it because it feels like such a victim of circumstances outside its control.

Adam: I’m team Cutthroat Island. What are we covering next week?

Rob: Our summer baseball series continues with the 2008 drama, Sugar. Until next time…

Adam: These seats are reserved.


  1. I really liked the movie the one time I saw it, far more than the absurd and dull The Hurt Locker or the narratively incoherent Zero Dark Thirty. It's right up there with Gerwig's Little Women for my favorite movie directed by a woman (of which there are too few).

  2. > sounds like a burger at Hardees.

    My nomination for Wittiest Slug Line of 2020. Congrats, gents.

    1. I would order that burger, if I could sleep for a day.

  3. This movie in retrospect feels like a trial run for Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, it's just that it happened to cost a billion dollars and no one wanted to watch it. Bigelow has an eye for people doing jobs, whatever they might be, that rivals Michael Mann's in my opinion. I do wish Bigelow would make a straight up horror movie, even though it might be unbearable.