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August 2, 2002

Nyet! Nyet! It is da Vidowmaker!

K19: The Widowmaker

Directed by Katherine Bigelove

Rated PG-13

Running time 138 minutes

Let me be completely fair and honest. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, qualified to gauge the historical accuracy of any movie. Certain movies, like Amistad, for instance, might be 100% or 0% accurate and I would not know the difference. Nevertheless, I feel confident that at least one aspect of K19: The Widowmaker was completely off base. I know that I was not alive at the time, and much of the world was still in black and white, but honestly: the Soviets in the 60's did not (NOT) speak English with a Russian accent. Various movies have insisted on perpetuating this myth. Subtitles and cryptic sounds would be better; so would English with no accent. Please choose one of the above. There is no third option. Please.

I have said that I know very little about history, and I stand by this proposition. But I can't help feeling vaguely exploited by movies like K19 and The Patriot. There are innumerable dramatic tensions and emotions that stem from real wars; movies that wish to employ these sensations, I think, bear responsibilities other than fidelity to the events themselves (and I must point out that many historical movies do not even acknowledge this first duty). These sorts of movies ought also to actually be good in their own right. Movies that fall short of this goal cheapen the importance of the real event. This problem is especially sharp for K19, whose melodramatic textual epigraph boldly proclaims that it represents the first telling of its story, a tale of the Cold War's near-explosion suppressed by the Communist Party for 28 years.

At times, I felt that I was actually taken in by this movie, ready to shed a tear for the young men lost at sea with only tattered photos of their fair-skinned girlfriends to cling to. Why can't these two lovers ever embrace again, why must they be engulfed in a nuclear disaster triggered by an overly ambitious leader? But predictability plagued these moments, and the repetitive, you-thought-it-couldn't-get-any-worse-but-it-just-did dramatic flow stripped away their importance. By the third or fourth such moment, I found myself slouching down in my seat rather than creeping up to its edge. And these problems exposed amateurish plot maneuvers that came earlier in the flick.

Harrison Ford portrays an ultra-loyal Communist comrade sea captain who is charged with conducting the first tests of the nuclear submarine K19. The central conflict in the story is the clash between Ford and an intelligent, friendly captain-turned-subordinate-officer, played by Liam Neeson. Ford's attitude tests the crewmen and their captain emeritus (Neeson) beyond the limits of reason, and tempers flare. All Ford's monomania is attributed to a disciplinarian of a father in a cinematic moment that made me cringe. Whatever the actual words were, I came away with this:

Liam Neeson: You're the captain, and you're really tough. I heard from some apparent mutual acquaintance, whom I will not bother to identify, that your dad was similarly tough.

Harrison Ford: Yes. We were both quite tough. Perhaps I learned it from him, because fathers sure do have a profound effect on their sons.

Liam Neeson: I can only hope that later in the film your toughness does not become a problem, because then it might create a subplot in which you were constantly trying to live up to your father's wishes even when such efforts were unnecessary.

Harrison Ford: Yes, that would be a problem, but I'm still tough like my father.

Seriously, this moment was painful. Why play with incredibly profound issues of fatherhood in a war movie? Faulkner and Joyce wrote volume after volume of near-gibberish in an attempt to resolve these questions. Freud spent a career on them. Why should Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson crack them in a six-line dialogue?

The naval-boy-with-girlfriend subplot was equally cheap. We never see the couple do anything but say "goodbye, I love you," and make out. No more than seven or eight cinematic minutes could have been spent on the two conflicts combined.

It wouldn't be worth it to go into every subplot that needed more development; any movie that actually did all the developing I'm suggesting would probably just turn into Das Boot, and no one sits for four-hour sub movies anymore. Besides, plot elements of many good movies look shoddy under the right kind of microscope (can anyone remember why Vencini wanted to kill Buttercup in The Princess Bride?). Suffice it to say that K19 should have focused on what appears to have been a very compelling true story, rather than attempting to add new dimensions. Ultimately, the sideline conflicts only took away from the central ones.

This movie was playing Russian Roulette with bullets in five chambers. The director got the first one. It was his decision to give everyone Russian accents, his decision to tack on a corny 30-year reunion of the surviving crewmembers. This little add-on said more about the limits of the make-up artists than it did about the historical significance of the events.

The screenwriter got the second bullet, and the third one. He takes the blame for the pesky subplots, which means a lot of blame.

Harrison Ford took a fourth bullet, and Liam Neeson—the only other bona fide star in the movie—was miraculously unharmed. In spite of all my criticism, I actually thought Neeson performed quite well. He maintained the appearance of devotion to principles while showing likeability as the former captain of the crew. He was dynamic, changing his attitudes towards Ford as the story unfolded. He just did a good job, and Ford did not.

This really isn't fair. Like any reasonable moviegoer, I like Harrison Ford. The Fugitive, the Star Wars trilogy, In the Line of Fire, and American Graffiti were all great movies, largely because of him. But he has made some really terrible movies too. Six Days, Seven Nights was forgettable, and I'm being generous. Air Force One was the kind of mistake you can forgive, if it occurs infrequently.

But K19 was Air Force One all over again, except much worse. Ford demonstrated very little versatility, and his character lacked depth. He got angry a few times, pursed his lips in a militant fashion once or twice, and that was basically that. And, of course, when I finally left the movie theater, all I could see was one final bullet bearing in on Harrison Ford's left temple, its casing emblazoned with the words "bad Russian accent."