Cinema Signal:

The Secret Story of the Soviet Nuclear Submarine

. "K-19: The Widowmaker"

You would expect a submarine picture to evoke memories of previous ones, like U-571, "Das Boot" and others, and well it does. But in the grand expectations of its subject and its ultimate destiny we think more in terms of "Titanic". Once more a new ship, the best of its kind, the powerhouse of the fleet, meets an ignoble end.

The telling of it here is paced with action, but too muddied by symbolism and the heavy air of "Russian honor". In terms of the humans involved, we get icons and, since they, too, are Russian, they weigh heavily, gold embossing and all. It's almost a stereotype that the bureacracy of the Soviet Union never got it right in attempting to meet or exceed American standards. They sure failed with this submarine.

When the story begins, Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson) is the captain of the new sub, the pride of the Soviet Navy, sporting the most advanced design and nuclear missile weaponry they've yet known. Of course, this doesn't mean there was enough money or time to get everything aboard that might be needed. Polenin is one of the best things about it, a man who commands love and loyalty from an adoring crew. He's a father figure and benign master to the lot.

But with greater political goals in mind, especially as it relates to competition with the U.S., the Soviet hierarchy replaces Polenin, appointing the more politically attuned Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) master of the ship for its maiden voyage, thereby demoting the popular and effective Polenin to executive officer, which Polenin takes in stride.

As Vostrikov takes his first tour of the ship before it sets sail... er, revs up its turbines... an ominous sign of trouble occurs. Polenin's experienced nuclear officer is found sloppy drunk and asleep on post. Vostrikov is livid and demands a change, acquiring young graduate Vadim Radtchenko (Peter Sarsgaard) to replace him. This on a ship that in its building has lost so many men to accidents that it's nicknamed "the widowmaker". The grim Vostrikov's first sample of leadership is not guided by wisdom.

But, he tries. In his heavy-handed way, he ignores the ill bodings of a bad christening when the champagne bottle didn't break over the bow, he accepts a ship's doctor who gets seasick, and orders the crew on a continuous round of drills until they do them in the alloted time. While this is the first thing he does that will have a positive payoff, he doesn't get his men to feel good about their assignment until he drops the sub below its intended maximum depth, putting them all in peril, and then has them successfully launch a test missile.

Even when in agreement about goals, there is a ongoing disagreement between Vostrikov and his second in command about methods. We get the idea that there's more than one way to run a sub and when things really start running amok in these claustrophobic quarters, there's an eventual meeting of the minds.

That meeting is, in no small measure, due to the morally diligent sense of rightness of Polenin to whom command power is desirable only under proper circumstances -- a posture of uprightness that might seem artificial were it portrayed by anyone other than Liam Neeson.

Neeson here, as an actor, stakes his flag even higher on the mountain of role model extraordinaire. His steadfast stature and commanding presence makes you wish only to be in the same room with him. It's more than what's in the script -- Neeson just conveys all that's best about the strength of a male figure. In this role his natural charisma powerfully supports the character. Cheers to him. But though he plays a hand in salvaging the sub, he doesn't quite raise the picture up from the gloomy depths. Still, the story of men fighting to control their machine has action and drama, and you don't often get a chance to see a film with two such stalwart figures of the acting profession. It's worth the time.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Liam Neeson and Harrison Ford, executive officer and captain
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