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Review: 'Widowmaker' a taut undersea thriller

Attention to detail helps film stand out

Harrison Ford
Harrison Ford plays a Soviet captain in "K-19: The Widowmaker."  

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

(CNN) -- In June 1961, just a year after Francis Gary Powers' U2 spy plane was shot down over the USSR and 16 months before the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world to the brink of war, a brand-new Soviet nuclear submarine, the K-19, was launched on its maiden voyage. After the successful test firing of a missile in the Arctic Sea, the sub was off the eastern coast of the United States when disaster struck.

Shown from the Soviet point of view, the film "K-19: The Widowmaker," starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, tells the dramatic story of how a group of brave sailors saved their sub, and perhaps the whole world, from a nuclear holocaust.

The movie opens with Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Ford) being sent by the Soviet High Command to test-run the K-19. America has successfully launched its first nuclear Polaris missile submarine, the USS George Washington. Not to be left behind in the arms race, the Soviets have decided to launch the K-19 before she has been completely tested.

The original captain of the boat, Mikhail Polenin (Neeson), is replaced by Vostrikov when it's decided Polenin is not proceeding quickly enough to meet the deadline. However, he's kept on as second-in-command due to his extensive knowledge of the sub.

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The dynamics between the two men are set: Polenin has the love and loyalty of his crew, while Vostrikov is viewed as a rash Communist zealot who will unnecessarily risk the lives of his men in order to further his own career.

Between the U.S. and the deep blue sea

From the beginning of the voyage, Vostrikov pushes his mostly undertrained crew with constant safety drills, driving them to the outer limits of endurance. The mood on board is grim. Bad luck has dogged them since the start of their mission: even the champagne bottle used to christen the boat refused to break. Submariners are traditionally a superstitious lot, and the tension builds.

After the test missile is successfully fired, the mood lifts briefly. Then the sub is ordered to patrol the American coastline between Washington and New York. The new mission has barely begun when one of the two nuclear reactors springs a leak. The inner core begins to heat up. If it reaches 1,000 degrees it may cause a meltdown, followed by a nuclear explosion that could set off World War III.

The drama swiftly unwinds as the men face death by radiation, explosion, or drowning. As the crew desperately tries to repair the damage, an American destroyer arrives on the scene. Now they're faced with a terrible decision: surrender the boat and save their lives; stay on the surface and potentially blow up the destroyer, along with themselves (and perhaps start a war); or dive and continue the repairs -- and possibly die trying.

Director Kathryn Bigelow, who directed "Point Break" (1991) and "Strange Days" (1995), has done an excellent job with obviously limited space. It's difficult to film action in a submarine and not have all of the shots look alike. But Bigelow uses the claustrophobic atmosphere to great advantage. "K-19: The Widowmaker" may not be in the same class as "Das Boot" (1981), but like that great film, it details an armed conflict from the viewpoint of an enemy of the United States, and makes you care about the characters. Like many good war films, it shows how much we all have in common, rather than focusing on our differences.

Outstanding performances

Liam Neeson, as the sub's original captain, challenges Harrison Ford in "K-19."  

The almost manic attention to detail also gives this film a feeling of authenticity. The sailor's uniforms were made in Russia from the same fabrics used by the Navy at that time. All the interior sets, the instruments, tubing, piping and signage are authentic. Even the glasses and dishes used by the men were designed after the originals.

The casting is done to perfection. All the sailors look the part -- not an all-American boy with perfect teeth in the bunch. Even the extras have an eastern European look that further validates the feeling of reality.

But what really lifts this film above your run-of-the-mill submarine flick is the superb acting by Ford and Neeson.

Ford has never been better as the steely-eyed, grim and determined Vostrikov. His very presence gives the film a strong center of gravity and a determined sense of purpose. Neeson is no shrinking violet, and his scenes with Ford are electric as they go head to head over the fate of the boat, their mission, and the world.

"K-19: The Widowmaker" is a great yarn, albeit one that makes the Soviet government at a Cold War peak look like a monolithic red-tape nightmare. But aside from those blatant bureaucratic stereotypes (usually it's the U.S. government that's made to look idiotic), this story does provide a glimpse into hearts and minds of the average Soviet seaman during the height of the Cold War. It's a story about bravery, patriotism and honor, no matter what flag you fly.

"K-19: The Widowmaker" opens nationwide on Friday, July 19, and is rated PG-13.


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