July 19, 2002 
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K-19: The Widowmaker
Ford, Neeson are catastrophic delights
How to save the world in K-19: The Widowmaker

Arthur J Pais

The pleasure of seeing Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson clash fiercely is good enough to see K-19: The Widowmaker, the new Paramount Pictures film, which could follow the same studio's The Sum Of All Fears to become yet another thriller hit this summer. The latter is heading for a strong $120 million run in North America.

With all its faults the new movie is an admirable effort. For it tries to tell an intriguing story set in the Cold War years from Russian perspective.

When was the last time we saw a Hollywood movie in which Russians loyal to the communist order were still shown as men of honour and integrity?

On the negative side, the movie takes a long time to build up tension, the Russian accents are too affected at times and the way Neeson's character changes his mind towards his adversary, the die-hard bureaucrat (played superbly by Ford) seems too sudden.

Those who enjoyed The Hunt For Red October [1990], another Cold War thriller, might think this film is not as gripping as that Sean Connery-Alec Baldwin film.

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The Sum Of All Fears

K-19's pace might seem too slow for younger viewers. And that would be one of several reasons including the somewhat convoluted plot why the film could become only a sizeable hit, earning about $100-$120 million.

The movie, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is based on real incidents that embarrassed the Soviet Union so much that the men involved in them were ordered to be silent about them.

In 1961, the new Soviet K-19 nuclear-powered submarine nearly experienced a total meltdown, thanks mainly due to bureaucratic ambition, incompetence and bungling, and was about to trigger a nuclear war with America.

Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson in K-19: The Widowmaker The story concerns two men --- Alexei Vostrikov (Ford) and Mikhail Polenin (Neeson) --- who despite their allegiance to the Communist regime decided to follow their individualistic minds and save the world from a nuclear catastrophe.

The most interesting part of the film is how Vostrikov, a tough-minded Soviet naval bureaucrat, changes his mind towards the end of the film and decides to ask for American help when K-19 runs into unimagined, turbulent problems.

The film starts with an elaborately staged nuclear 'crisis' on K-19 and then introduces us to the tough-minded but realistic skipper Polenin, portrayed by Liam Neeson splendidly. Polenin is beholden to his men who respect him enormously but the bureaucrats in Moscow do not care for his realistic attitude. They want K-19 in operation immediately so that they can flaunt it before the American spy cameras. And they send Captain Vostrikov (Ford) to take command and make the submarine operational close to the American waters

To be fair to Vostrikov, the film makes allowance for his own scepticism about sending the untested submarine to the front lines on the Atlantic. But the top brass shoot down Vostrikov's reservations, and soon he follows the official dictates.

The impending disaster is clearly seen early in the film. As Vostrikov and Polenin clash, we also see other problems all over. The man in charge of the reactor is drunk and his replacement brings with him emotional luggage that becomes a serious liability. And then there are freak accidents. The only doctor aboard is killed in an accident.

There are also many tense and eerie moments like when Vostrikov pushes his men and the boat so hard that the submarine nearly blows up.

But Vostrikov's successful missile test grudgingly brings him respect from the workers beholden to Polenin. However, Vostrikov's luck runs out when the submarine is ordered to the Atlantic sector, to directly face the American coast and a leak in the reactor brings about a meltdown risk.

Harrison Ford plays Alexei Vostrikov in K-19: The Widowmaker To make things worse, the leak is in a sealed area and Vostrikov must assign pairs of men to wade in and physically control the leak. The action, tensely captured by the director, shows the spread of radioactive material through the battered sub.

In the face of the looming disaster, Vostrikov remains cold and hostile but when he fully realises the level of radioactive contamination that is sickening the crew, two of the men intensely loyal to Polenin rebel, triggering yet another crisis. Even then, Vostrikov rejects the plea of his comrades that he seek help from the Americans.

Following more drama and a finely realised sub-plot in which Polenin restores Vostrikov's dignity, the mechanical minded Vostrikov has a change of heart. And risks his own life to save the crew --- and the prestige of the Soviet Union.

One of the strengths of K-19 is that its special effects are not overwhelming, and in the cramped, rotting confines of the submarine, there is plenty of room for human emotions and some fine acting.

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