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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

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Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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The story behind K-19 The Widowmaker lends itself better to a disaster movie than an action thriller. The “villains” are only the laws of physics and the motivations of politicians. One thing is certain: whatever movie in whatever genre sprang from these events was sure to have drama.

The K-19 was the Russians’ first nuclear submarine. The Americans had already launched their first nuclear sub a year earlier, in 1960. The pressure to keep up with the Americans caused the Russians to launch too soon. There were still bugs in the system, and since some of these bugs involved the nuclear reactor, some sailors died. Remarkably, most of the men and the K-19 itself survived. (The accident-prone sub stayed in commission for 20 years and was eventually given the nickname Hiroshima.)

The reason we’re seeing this movie in 2002, and not in 1968, is that the Russians kept information about the K-19 secret until the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Captains Courageous

Ford and Neeson butt heads aboard K-19Harrison Ford plays Captain Vostrikov, the man in charge of the K-19. Vostrikov is assigned to replace Captain Polenin (Neeson), who wasn’t getting the boat ready fast enough for the Party leaders.

The reason Polenin was not moving fast enough was that he refused to cut corners when the safety of his men was at stake. In contrast, Ford’s Vostrikov is colder, more calculating, and more commanding. He is able to see the Party’s global point of view and is willing to take bigger risks with personnel.

Submarine movies almost always include conflict between the captain and the XO, and K-19 The Widowmaker comes with a ready-made conflict. Polenin is ordered to stay on the ship — not as captain, but as captain Vostrikov’s executive officer. To have to serve on the same boat in this diminished capacity would bring shame to most seamen.

Adding volatility to the situation is the fierce loyalty the crew feels for their former captain. Where Neeson’s Polenin earned love from his men, Vostrikov demands obedience.

Party Boat

With Vostrikov in charge, the K-19 is “ready” to set sail on schedule, and everyone in the Party is happy. The sailors don’t see their maiden voyage in such a positive light. The string of accidents leading up to their launch almost plays like comedy. The ship’s doctor gets the wrong delivery of medicine and in trying to correct the mistake, is killed by a truck. There is a half-degree list to port that can’t be corrected, and sealing the ship’s fate, the christening bottle of champagne fails to break on the hull.

As soon as the ship is at sail, Vostrikov puts the men through drill after drill. The men find him a hard-nosed bully compared to their beloved Polenin. And yet, under his command the crew are learning to work together and overcoming some of the design flaws in the K-19. The successful launch of a test missile brings the first bit of joy to these men who have dubbed this bureaucratic junk bucket “The Widowmaker.”

But their joy doesn’t last long; Vostrikov really did push the new ship too hard. The nuclear reactor springs a leak inside the sealed core. The imminent meltdown will cause a nuclear blast that will trigger the other reactor and the warheads as well. Since the ship is within blast range of a NATO base, it could spark World War III.

Comrades in Arms

Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson are two commanding presences. Get them together in a movie — particularly one in which they butt heads — and you’ll be hard pressed to become bored. Ford is a little more interesting, if only because he’s more inscrutable. Were he more two-dimensional, one could almost boo him as a bad guy. Neeson’s love for his men is apparent, but in Ford, that love is deep beneath the surface, right next to his love of country.

The tension in K-19 makes it continually interesting. Something is always happening, even if it’s just a drill or an argument between captain and XO. The conflict between Ford and Neeson is not so explosive as the one between Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington in Crimson Tide, but this conflict is smarter and on more solid ground.

A host of younger unknowns fills out the cast. Only Peter Sarsgaard, playing the fresh-faced nuclear technician, made an impression. With such a big ensemble even the leads don’t get a lot of screen time. In fact, one could argue that the big star of the movie is the submarine itself. It certainly has lots of character, and it is photogenic.

If there is a complaint to be made, it is that K-19 The Widowmaker is a little bland. It doesn’t push any envelopes; it fits safely within established movie parameters. It is enjoyable enough, but I never felt like raving about this movie. And with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson at the helm, that’s too bad.