K19: The Widowmaker

As a great admirer of the films of Kathryn Bigelow, I went this weekend to see her new movie, K19:The Widowmaker“, starring Harrison Ford. While it is far from my favorite of her films, I wasn’t disappointed…

The plot is taken from a real story: it concerns a Soviet nuclear submarine that came close to blowing up in 1961, possibly setting a world nuclear war into motion. At great risk and the sacrifice of a number of lives, such a grand tragedy was averted. The captain of the sub had to make tough decisions. Men had to go into the heart of the nuclear reactor, and work on it without any shielding, until they collapsed from radiation poisoning.

Let’s get the obvious part out of the way first: in terms of its screenplay and its themes, this is absolutely standard Hollywood hokum. The usual stuff about heroism and courage and leadership, or if you prefer about male bonding and hierarchy. The clash between the hard-assed commander of a military unit, and his more humane, and more in touch with the men, second-in-command. And one more thing: although Bigelow is famous as a gender revisionist, there are no women at all in this picture, except for one scene of maybe a minute or so.

Not that any of that really matters. Kathryn Bigelow has always been at heart a genre director, and here she remains stubbornly truthful to the central cliches of this particular subgenre: the submarine picture. It’s what she does with all of this that counts. The energy and intensity with which she grabs hold of her material are unmatched among action directors today. With the possible exception of John Woo, Bigelow has no peer.

What we have in K19 is incredible tension, even though there is almost no action in the conventional sense. I mean, you can’t really show the progress of repairing a nuclear reactor, the way you can a fight or a car chase. What we do get are lots of starkly lit and framed closeups (there isn’t much room for long shots in the interior of a submarine), lots of Steadicam movement, dramatically paced editing, and a variant on Bigelow’s signature blue-tinted lighting. An intense feeling of claustrophobia, and a visceral sense that things are always on the verge of explosion. All in all, a movie of moods, shifting from moment to moment. I found the movie quite gripping, though in an oddly impersonal way, since the involuted environment of the submarine was more the star than any of the individual actors.

Which doesn’t mean I wasn’t impressed (yet again) by Harrison Ford.

Ford doesn’t really do very much in the film, but his iconic presence has never been stronger. He has a rugged charisma here that equals John Wayne’s; all the more powerfully so in that he doesn’t show any signs here of Wayne’s (or, for that matter, Indiana Jones’) swagger. Admittedly Ford isn’t being challenged by the role the way Wayne was in his greatest performances (especially The Searchers); but I could watch Ford’s craggy face in closeup against those submarine bulkheads forever. Ford is solid here in a way that nobody else can manage, and without any of the corny theatrics that mar the performances of so many other male stars today.

I’m not sure what else I can say about K19. I hope the film is successful enough that it allows Bigelow to raise the money for her future projects. Though K19 doesn’t have the rich and fascinating subtexts of such Bigelow films as Near Dark, Blue Steel, Point Break, and Strange Days, but in its own terms it’s a success.