Friday, January 17, 2014
K-19: The Widowmaker
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and screenplay by Christopher Kyle from a story by Louis Nowra, K-19: The Widowmaker is the story of a Soviet nuclear submarine crew dealing with reactor leak in the sub as a captain and officer try to deal with the situation and each other. Based on a real-life incident set in 1961 during the Cold War, the film is an exploration into the inner-politics between two officers and how they try to defuse an incident that would nearly spark World War III. Starring Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, and Peter Sarsgaard. K-19: The Widowmaker is an engaging film from Kathryn Bigelow.
The film is a simple story about a Soviet submarine crew in 1961 during the Cold War as it revolves around a new nuclear submarine where its crew and captain are under the command of a new captain who is trying to fulfill the duties of the state as he puts himself and crew at great risk during a test run. When its nuclear reactor starts to leak and radiation emerging into the submarine, two captains begin to figure out what to do as tension emerges between the two captains as well as its crew. It’s not just a film about the submarine crew trying to defuse a situation that spark World War III but also the idea of duty as Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) and Captain Mikhail “Misha” Polenin (Liam Neeson) try to find a balance over who they should be loyal to.
Christopher Kyle’s screenplay, with additional work from Tom Stoppard, does have a traditional structure as well as a study into the personalities of the two captains. Polenin treats his crew as if they’re his children and always help them in whatever as he will make sure they get the job done. Vostrikov is a more by-the-books individual who uses his rank to maintain control as he holds drills to see if the crew meets his expectations. This would add tension between Vostrikov and his crew who are loyal to Polenin as things get more complicated when the original doctor is killed as he’s replaced by a base doctor who knows nothing about radiation sickness. Another troubling circumstance is the addition of a new nuclear reactor officer in Lt. Vadim Radtchenko (Peter Sarsgaard) who had just graduated from the academy.
The mission was supposed to be a test run which was successful but Vostrikov’s ideas to test the submarine would have some serious repercussions when the radiator leaks. This would cause Vostrikov to be lost as two of Polenin’s officers plot a mutiny in order to get Polenin in control which would add to the drama of the film. Yet, it would create some major complications as it’s clear that Polenin isn’t just the film’s conscience but also a man who knows the importance of duty no how much he disagrees with Vostrikov. Especially since Vostrikov is under a lot of pressure from his superiors to deliver as he was given little time to get the ship ready as he tries to gain the trust of his crew.
Kathryn Bigelow’s direction doesn’t really do anything new as far as what’s been expected in a film set mostly in a submarine. Yet, she does manage to infuse a lot of style into the claustrophobic setting of the submarine which is still very engaging as it’s often cramped and there’s a lot that goes on. Bigelow’s use of tracking shots, hand-held cameras, and steadicams to capture the movements of a submarine as well as the sense of chaos showcase the pressure that isn’t just mounting on Captain Vostrikov but also his entire crew. Even as there’s a nuclear reactor in that submarine as it’s the most fragile thing on the submarine where Bigelow reveals how it would leak through some visual effects as it’s one of the few sequences that requires visual effects along with some scenes in the submarine. A lot of these moments not only showcase the submarine as a character in the film but a very fragile character that is being pushed too the limits as it serves a symbol of world that is in the cusp of complete terror.
Bigelow also knows when to give the suspense and drama a bit of a break for a scene where the crew play football outside of the sub and on an ice block along with a scene where the sub is stopped as they’re seen by an American helicopter where the crew moons it. The film also includes an epilogue which not only plays into the fall of communism but also what the two captains and its surviving crew have lost as they ponder the sacrifice of those who saved them. Overall, Bigelow crafts a very compelling film about two captains dealing with the idea of duty during the Cold War.
Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth does excellent work with the film‘s cinematography from the use of lights in the submarine as well as the blue lights inside the reactor room along with some naturalistic shots of some exterior scenes in the day and night. Editor Walter Murch does fantastic work with the editing with its use of rhythmic cuts to play into some of the action as well as some jump-cuts and some slow-motion moments to play into the drama. Production designers Karl Juliusson and Michael Novotny do amazing work with the look of the submarine and its many compartments as well as its port and some of the base buildings where the superiors are at work.
Costume designer Marit Allen does nice work with the look of the uniforms the crew wears to play into the sense of importance as well as who they are as they‘re loyal to each other. Visual effects supervisors Bruce Jones and John Nelson do terrific work with some of the visual effects such as the submarine under the sea as well as the scene where it breaks into the ice. Sound designer Pat Jackson and co-sound editor Larry Schalit do superb work with sound to play into the atmosphere of the submarine as well as its sirens and such inside the sub. The film’s music by Klaus Badelt is wonderful for its Russian-based orchestral score filled with vocal choirs and heavy string arrangements along with some pieces of traditional Russian folk music and the Soviet anthem that is played in the film.
The casting by Ross Clydesdale, Mali Finn, and Mary Selway is brilliant for the ensemble that is created as it features some notable small performances from Joss Ackland as the defense minister Marshal Zolentov, John Shrapnel as Admiral Bratyeev, Christian Camargo as the senior reactor technician Loktev, and Donald Sumpter as the submarine’s new medical officer Gennadi Savran who has no clue what he’s dealing with as he was a last-minute replacement. Steve Nicolson and Ravil Isyanov are terrific in their respective roles as torpedo officer Yuri Demichev and political officer Igor Suslov as they would be the one to plot the mutiny against Vostrikov. Peter Sarsgaard is excellent as the reactor officer Lt. Vadim Radtchenko who comes in at the last minute unaware of the situation he’s facing as he deals with his inexperience and inability to help his crew.
Liam Neeson is amazing as Captain Mishna Polenin as he is the film’s conscience as a man who is beloved by his crew as he deals with Vostrikov and the chaos of the submarine. Finally, there’s Harrison Ford in a superb performance as Captain Alexei Vostrikov as a man who has to ensure the success of his mission at great risk as he becomes torn between his duty to his superiors and doing what is right for himself and his crew.
K-19: The Widowmaker is an excellent film from Kathryn Bigelow that features top-notch performances from Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. While it may not have a lot of originality, it is still a captivating film about a submarine crew and its two captains trying to prevent World War III from happening as well as delving into the theme of duty. In the end, K-19: The Widowmaker is a superb film from Kathryn Bigelow.
Kathryn Bigelow Films: The Loveless - Near Dark - Blue Steel - Point Break - Strange Days - The Weight of Water - The Hurt Locker - Zero Dark Thirty - The Auteurs #29: Kathryn Bigelow
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