Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

K-19: The Widowmaker


This one was a bit of a mystery to me. It is a big movie, budget $100,000,000. (That still qualifies as big, doesn’t it? And this was 2002.) It has two big stars, Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. And I couldn’t recall even hearing about it. I probably did, but I’m not recalling it. And it flopped, big-time, made back only $35,000,000 domestically. So, I wondered, where did they go wrong?

Now that I’ve seen it, I can think of several reasons. First and most important, it’s too long and too slow. It’s based on a true story of the Soviet Union’s first nuclear sub, which was rushed into service before it was ready to counter the American nuclear submarine threat. It’s a good story, too, and the scenes that do work, work very well. But larded into the middle of the tense stuff are long stretches of badly-acted, cliché-ridden scenes, and I have to say it’s mostly the fault of Harrison Ford.

Ford was one of the producers, and I think that is often a big mistake. There is extensive “Making of” material on the DVD, and several people comment, diplomatically, as if it were a good thing, on his “perfectionism.” That often leads to long pre-production times and unnecessary expense, because movie stars often have a less-than-complete understanding of what things cost, and how the technical crews can cheat things to look just as good as the real deal would look. Thus, every tiny aspect of the submarine was authentic. They even had advisors checking the spelling of Russian words on the sub’s instruments, which strikes me as about as foolish as Erich Von Stroheim’s insistence, long ago, on having his Prussian Army extras wearing the correct silk underwear. Who’s going notice? Who’s going to care? Little things like that add up.

So that might explain budgetary problems, but Ford also looks to be responsible for the fact that a lot of it just lies there like a dead fish. He is excruciatingly slow in delivering his lines. There are long, long, long dramatic pauses that could easily have been compressed and would have worked just as well, or even better. And the line, when it finally came, was often so predictable. Half a dozen times I could literally have spoken the next line out loud, and done it twenty seconds before Ford did. To the crew: “You are nothing without me.” Pause. Long pause. And I’m thinking, “And I am nothing without you.” Bingo, give me a kewpie doll. When the action is all over there is a reunion scene at a cemetery and it drags on and on, maybe ten minutes. It wasn’t needed at all, it should have been left on the cutting room floor, but if it was there, it could have been done in five minutes instead of ten. This is deadly in a movie that stretches to two hours and twenty-five minutes. Just a simple re-edit could easily have trimmed twenty of those minutes, and if anybody on the set had had the nerve to tell Harrison to get the lead out, another ten minutes could have been saved. One hour fifty minutes is about right for this story. But you don’t tell a $20-million-per-picture star to speed it up, especially if he’s the producer.

It’s sad, really, because what they ended up with is a movie that alternates between scenes of genuine nail-biting tension, and scenes of real boredom. I imagine audiences snoozed in droves, and came out and warned their friends. And it’s a damn shame, too, because it was obviously assembled with a lot of love. It was an important project to the writer and to the director, Kathryn Bigelow. Rather than go the CGI route, they found an actual Russian sub—in Florida, of all places, where someone had failed at turning it into a restaurant and nightclub!—and had to practically re-build it. It was diesel sub, and about a third too short to be the real K-19, so they built a Fiberglas extension at great expense. For the real shots at sea they had a flotilla of 26 boats, including a Canadian frigate acting as an American destroyer, and a second Russian sub. There were six boats just to carry the safety rescue crew divers, because falling into the waters off Halifax, you had about two minutes before you would start to lose consciousness and sink like a stone. This is all very expensive.

And it’s sad because it could have been a real corker, up there with Das Boot and other tense submarine movies. It’s just a naturally tense situation, isn’t it? You barely have room to turn around, the sea is trying to crush you, and now something’s on fire, or a destroyer is trying to kill you. I’ve never seen a submarine movie when I didn’t think, “How do these guys tolerate this?” I’d be a basketcase in about an hour. What happened to the K-19 was a rupture in the reactor cooling system. To repair it, men had to go into the breached containment chamber, where they could work for ten minutes before being so badly burned by radiation that they immediately started to vomit up the lining of their digestive tracts. All seven who went in, died. Very strong, very disturbing stuff.

And the passion for accuracy really works, too. It’s amazing how tiny these spaces are. In the extra material Liam Neeson, who is almost as tall as me (he’s 6’4”) marvels that men taller than him actually served in these tin can death traps. He looks like Gulliver in Lilliput.

What a shame.

So I got to thinking, what could have been done, other than much tighter editing? I don’t think that the fact that it was all-Russian, and that the crew was just as patriotic as an American crew might have been, is a problem. We sympathized with a Nazi sub crew in Das Boot, after all. This picture is not full of slam-bang action … but neither is the #1 movie of all time, Titanic. Both of those pictures are about boats that are in big trouble; the difference is, the Titanic goes down. Both pictures are rather ponderous in their stories; the difference is that the ponderousness sinks (so to speak) K-19, and not Titanic. So what’s missing here?

Well, obviously, Kate Winslet. We need a girl. Romance under the high seas. The love story is what got teenage girls going multiple times, and really, if you can’t get the women into the theater, though you can certainly do okay with a fan-boy action movie, you can’t do titanically well. The emotional qualities on display here are male bonding in a military setting, sacrificing oneself for the good of your country and your shipmates, staying true to your oaths and obligations … and women just aren’t interested. Now, I’m sure the potential for romance among the crew of the K-19 was just as frequent and just as clandestine as in our own don’t-ask, don’t-tell army … but that’s not going to play, either, is it. 20,000 Leagues Under Brokeback Mountain? I don’t think so.

I have it! Kate Winslet can stow away, like Leo DiCaprio did! Harrison Ford is conducting a hot and heavy romance on shore, and decides to smuggle his sweetie aboard, moving her around from room to room, disguising her as an able seaman. (Maybe somebody not quite as voluptuous as Kate. Maybe Gwyneth Paltrow. She played a girl masquerading as a man playing a girl in Shakespeare in Love.) And she’s a nuclear scientist, and when the reactor blows its top she has to figure out how to fix it, and send Harrison into the hot core …

Hey, if you ever need a script doctor, I’m your guy!