When K-19: The Widowmaker first came to our town, I passed on the opportunity to see it; “I don’t need another catastrophe on film”, I thougt. Later on, in my goings to the video rental store, I saw this movie again, and once more I ignored it. Perhaps my reaction was due to my disappointment at learning that this was no “Hunt for Red October” movie, but something about an accident and the men that barely managed to save their lives. However, one day my wife stopped at the video store on her way home, and brought it. “I thought you might like it,” she said. Oh well. As usual, it paid off to heed my wife’s advice. If I can tell anything in advance about the movie, it is that I liked it a lot; and that you might as well, too.
The movie is set in 1961, the year when the Cold War reached one of its peaks at the Cuban Missile Crisis. As the initial screens dutifully remind us, these were the years where the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction was in full sway. Those were the years of nuclear bunkers, multi-megaton termonuclear devices, and spooks real or imagined. Pretty romantic for many, but definitely not funny for those who had to live through these years.
In the midst of that scenario, the Soviet Navy is ready to give operational status to their newest nuclear submarine, the K-19. She is a “boomer”; that is, she’s a submarine intended mostly for firing of missiles containing thermonuclear warheads. In other words, K-19 is not an attack submarine whose main mission would be establishing naval superiority through an array of offensive weapons directed at enemy threats on the air, the surface, and under the surface. However, she does have torpedoes, as all boomers do, mainly for defensive purposes. The ship is powered by two nuclear reactors, located at fore and aft, respectively, and is powered by a sizeable crew. The main movie set is very well thought out, and reflects the state of Soviet naval technology of the late fifties and early sixties. It also conveys very well the cramped, claustrophobic atmosphere inside the submarine.
With all that said, the movie starts off. After a verbal skirmish with one of his superiors, Captain Mikhael Polenin (Liam Neeson), the ship’s commander, is relieved from command. But since time was running thight, he was assigned as Executive Officer (XO), or second in command. For the command post, the Russian Navy selected Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), the son of a disgraced naval commander who died in the Gulag, but with newfound influence thanks to his marriage to a niece of a Politburo member. Soon it is pretty evident that the commanding styles of both men are different and opposite, and this is reflected in the crew as well.
After fulfilling their first objective (a missile test launch near the North Pole), the submarine heads for the American East Coast for patrol duty. Then the unthinkable happens: a major coolant leakage in the aft reactor causes the temperature of the chain reaction to rise way above their safety level of 400 C or lower. The reactor crew tries unsuccessfuly to halt the chain reaction. Soon enough, the reactor temperature reaches levels dangerously high, and if it explodes, it could start a massive explosion of the submarine’s nuclear arsenal. Given the current political climate of tension, distrust, Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction, this not only would be a major environmental catastrophe; this would bring Armageddon.
Thus we have the main conflict in the story. This is the stage for a major showdown of character in face of adversity, a true test of convictions. The movie delivers, and the tale that ensues is harrowing, gut-wrenching, and strangely exhilarating to the very end. I mean, the acting is OK, even though it is nothing to write home about; but I couldn’t help thinking of the catastrophe of K-141 Kursk, sunk in the Barents sea in August 13, 2000, with all hands. The K-19 episode was so close to this and much more.
Overall, I liked the movie, and I have no problem to give it my recommendation. Very good in several respects.
Some points worth considering
At the end, there are several points worth noting in the development of the movie:
The clash of leadership styles. It was pretty clear that Captains Vostrikov and Polenin had leadership styles pretty different. Polenin was friendly, and almost paternalistic; he believed in leading a group of friends, coworkers, and subordinates. He saw himself more as a facilitator than as a true commander, relying on the trust and respect of his crew. Vostrikov, on the other hand, pushed the crew to its limits almost from the start, and the crew almost broke down under the pressure. He wanted to maintain a cohesive crew, bound by the common crush of adversity, real or made-up. He also failed to show true naval leadership, because a captain should not put his crew under continuous, torturing pressure. He should set high standards, and stick to them; but crew morale should be high as well. Vostrikov relied too much in the political commissioner for maintaining the morale; but morale, as well as the setting and maintenance of high standards of seamanship, is a function of the Captain’s leadership.
It is worth mentioning that both men based their leadership in paternal figures. There’s one scene when Polenin tells Vostrikov, “I believe the captain should be like a father to his crew”, to which Vostrikov retorted, “If you knew my father you would be paralyzed by fear.”
This is interesting because God is our Father, too; so how paternal figures are presented to us are critical in our relationship to God. We are often too quick to judge people who reject our Lord; and in many occasions, they never knew a real father figure, or what they had was just a stern dictator who never showed true affection.
The value of human life. Early in the movie, a high-ranking naval officer tells Capt. Vostrikov that Polenin “placed his ship and his crew above the interests of the Party”. Later on, at a very heated moment, Vostrikov states that his loyalty Lies only with the Soviet state. What becomes clear from this contrast is the true outcome of materialistic worldviews: human beings are no more than little thinking machines and they have a value exactly equal to any other piece of machinery. The only valuable, important being, is The State; and when some piece of junk becomes more valuable, human lives are ditched without a second thought. Vostrikov echoes this worldview, while Polenin’s actions tell that he still regarded human life as sacred in some way.
So we have a dilemma: should we carry our mission and lose lives, or save lives and fail to accomplish our mission? Master and Commander: The Far Side of The World, which I hold as the best naval movie in many years, illustrated this dilemma in many ways; but there is a scene where Capt. Jack Aubrey tells Maturin that he, as a captain, has to look for the well-being of his crew, but sometimes he had to choose mission over crew lives, and the crew knew it and even expected it. However, in Soviet naval doctrine this “sometimes” was changed to “every time”. And here we see the profound, de-humanizing force of socialistic materialism. As usual, C.S. Lewis said it all:
The rescue of drowning men is a duty worth dying for, but not worth
living for. It seems to me that all political duties (among which I
include military duties) are of this kind. A man may have to die for
our country, but no man must, in any exclusive sense, live for his
country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal
claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that
which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself. (Learning in War-Time)
True loyalty. We already saw that Captains Polenin and Vostrikov were in strong disagreement as to how to handle the ship; and this disagreement and clash of leadership styles was apparent to the crew. However, Polenin knew his place as a sailor and his loyalty was to the ship’s captain, even in testing times.
During one scene there’s a mutiny led by two high-ranking officers. They wanted to hand the ship to Polenin; but Polenin refused, gave back the command to Vostrikov, and placed the two men under arrest. Later on, in the investigation that followed the incident, Polenin is speaking of Vostrikov in the highest terms, saying even that it would be an honor to sail under Vostrikov’s command.
This is also important considering that a follower of the Lord could face trying and tough times; and while one might question God, it is essential to keep following Him.
What is a real hero? The reactor officer, Vadim (Peter Sarsgaard), freaked out when he had to go inside the reactor room to perform emergency repairs in dangerous conditions. Though he got strange glances from other members of the crew, no one questioned him. Later on, when the repair broke out, he went on on his own and fixed it, getting twice the radiation exposure, and the captain told him that he was a hero. The point is, Vadim behaved like a coward first, but then he gave decisive and courageous help. It is OK to be afraid: the stuff heros are made of is not precisely lack of cowardice or fear, but a realization that these feelings are real, and are dealt with by a conscious choice of the will.
Widespread corruption costs lives. In one of the first scenes of the movies, a test fails because of a defective switch. A doctor dies trying to get to the supply truck, because he was given the wrong drugs. One of the gauges in the reactor room is defective: the operator must give it a tip with the finger to get the correct reading. The failure of the aft reactor is due to a leaky pipe. When emergency repairs had to be made in a high radiation environment, it turns out that there are no anti-radiation suits in the boat. See a common thread? Failure to follow standards, willingness to cut corners in production, too many mistakes made by a careless bureaucracy, all this points out to widespread corruption. Someone lined his pockets with the rubles that were necessary to make the submarine run smoothly. For this greed and carelessness, several crew members died.
Faith vs. superstition It is comical to see how superstitious the sailors were. When the champagne bottle did not break during the ship’s dedication, they thought: “We’re cursed!”. It is comical because these sailors were supposedly the cream of the crop of Soviet Russia, the foremos example of atheism by establishment. In another scene, one of the operators of the reactor was holding a cross when the reactor officer (Vadim) saw him, and reminded him that no religious icons or images were allowed inside the ship. Later on, when this same operator was lying in the infirmary, dying from radiation poisoning, Vadim himself put the cross on this man’s trembling fingers. How great the irony; when you refuse to submit to God in faith, you’re left to the worst –and crippling– superstition.