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[whitespace] 'K:19: The Widowmaker'
Deep Thoughts: Sub captain Harrison Ford takes an underwater cruise in Kathryn Bigelow's undersea adventure.

Dive, Dive

Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson re-enact 'Mutiny on the Bounty' on the submarine 'K:19: The Widowmaker'

By Richard von Busack

BECAUSE OF the breakthrough opening sequence in Saving Private Ryan, the modern war film can be a lot more frank about what happens to human bodies in battle. Other films following the lead of Saving Private Ryan, such as Black Hawk Down and Windtalkers, suffer from the same problem as Private Ryan. After showing such carnage, it's hard to wrap up the ending nicely in the flag, even if, as in the case of K-19: The Widowmaker, the flag has a hammer and sickle on it.

This story of the Soviet hell-boat is shaped by screenwriter Christopher Kyle as a 1961 Cold War version of Mutiny on the Bounty. Harrison Ford plays Capt. Alexei Vostrikov, a by-the-book martinet like Captain Bligh in the more enlightened versions of the Bounty story. For political reasons, Vostrikov has been sent by the Kremlin to override Capt. Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), the trusted skipper beloved by his crew.

The new sub's mission is psychologically important. The U.S.S.R. hopes that this nuclear-powered submarine will rival the U.S. boats within firing distance of the Soviet borders. However, the sub is bug-ridden. (The bow is held together with trim that looks suspiciously like duct tape.) On the maiden voyage, the nuclear core sprouts a leak, a condition worsened by a lack of emergency planning and a grass-green reactor technician (Peter Sarsgaard). The sailors risk a horrible death by radiation poisoning to fix the problem. If they fail, the movie argues, a meltdown might convince the Americans that the U.S.S.R. is attacking a nearby NATO base with nuclear weapons.

Ford's proven appeal doesn't fail him. Vostrikov is another old-movie heroic role, tailored to a '70s dropout, now aging; once again, we see the slight discomfort with authority that is Ford's hallmark (trouble is always thrust upon him). Neeson's also a perfect fit in the Fletcher Christian part, and the film adds some nightmarish new details to the submarine-ordeal movie.

Still, Kyle's script makes the plot as simplistic as the characters. And proposing the fate of the sub as an incident that might trigger World War III seems suspiciously like an overstatement of the case. Plus the film's upbeat ending ignores the fact that the sub killed 28 sailors in 1972 during an undersea fire.

Director Kathryn Bigelow has had experience with horror (the influential 1985 vampire film Near Dark) and science fiction (Strange Days). Certainly K-19 goes beyond an ordinary war film into the realm of first science fiction, then horror. When it tries to loop back into the stirring they-died-with-their-boots-on finale a self-respecting war movie needs, it can't recapture that military spirit; everything we've seen has been too horrific. The story of the submarine K-19 isn't so much about legendary heroism as it is about hidden injustice. As always, the version we hear is the officers' version, in which the word "honor' is supposed to make up for the lives lost under their command.

K-19: The Widowmaker (PG-13; 138 min.), directed by Kathryn Bigelow, written by Christopher Kyle, based on a story by Louis Nowra, photographed by Jeff Cronenweth and starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the July 18-24, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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