K-19K-19: The Widowmaker on Blu-ray

Here’s something you don’t see every day: Hollywood making a movie about the Soviet Union where the Soviet Union isn’t glorified as the be-all and end-all of human greatness.

And that’s good.

Not only that, but they’ve also crafted a gripping and fascinating human drama with realistic characters and situations into which the audience can really get its teeth.

And it’s based on a true story, too.

Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson star as the captains of K-19, the Soviet navy’s first nuclear-powered submarine. The time is 1961, at the height of the cold war. Kennedy has only recently come to power and the Cuban missile crisis is still in the future. The communist Soviet government is paranoid about the possibility for US aggression, afraid of a possible first strike nuclear attack. K-19, once operational, is designed to ease that threat by putting American cities within range of its nuclear missiles.

Neeson is the original commander, but the commie bigwigs don’t trust him fully because he dares to exhibit independent thought, so they bring in Ford to take over the center seat, keeping Neeson aboard as executive officer. At this point in the movie, K-19 is kind of like Star Trek the Motion Picture - in which a ship that isn’t yet ready for action is sent out anyway, skippered by a man not as familiar with it as he should be. At least with Star Trek, the Earth was indeed in danger, whereas it could be argued that the Soviet reading of American aggression was overblown.

Isn't hindsight great?

Anyway, as was often the way with communism, the ship (the pride of the fleet) was sent out unfinished, improperly equipped, and with inexperienced men in some of the key positions of responsibility. It was a recipe for disaster.

And guess what happens – disaster, or near disaster at any rate as one of the sub’s reactors malfunctions, forcing the crew to make some jury-rigged repairs that not only don’t work properly but which send deadly radiation throughout the ship and infects some of the crew terminally. A nearby American ship offers help, but the Soviet sailors have been trained to distrust, even to hate the Americans and their altruistic offer is spurned: better to sink with everyone aboard than hand over the Soviets’ greatest naval prize to the enemy.

Or is that really what’s behind Ford’s character’s rationale?

About the only complaint we had about K-19: the Widowmaker was the cheesy fake Russian accents, which it appears not everyone in the cast was forced to adopt. The audience knows right from the film’s opening that these are Russians – everyone in the movie is a Russian – but they’re speaking English for the obvious reason that this is an American film made for an English-speaking audience. We think the audience is adequately bright to remember the characters’ Russianness without the obtrusive fake accents.

Other than that this is a terrific film – and the criticism over the accents is pretty minor in the grand scheme of things. The cast is first rate, as is the story. And the production design and overall attention to detail (which may explain the accents) is laudable.

Ford, who was also Executive Producer, even gets to play a bit of a change of pace role here. Where he’s usually a stoic, stern faced heroic character whose heroism is rarely in doubt (his face on the movie's graphic show above is just like that) here we get to see him playing a stoic stern faced character whose heroism is in doubt. In fact, he seems for most of the movie to be closer to the Caine Mutiny’s Captain Queeg than Air Force One’s president James Marshall.

Then again, sometimes there’s more than meets the eye…

Neeson is also very good as the Captain, beloved by his crew but shoved aside by the bureaucrats he serves. And the supporting cast, most of whom you probably haven’t heard of before, contribute believable characterizations to an ensemble shoehorned together into the claustrophobic space of the Spartan Soviet sub.

The Blu-ray is also very good. The 1080p picture (2.35:1) is sharp and crisp and with very good color and pretty good depth. It’s a tad dark, but that’s more a result of the cramped interior and undersea locations in which the story is set. And in this case, the Blu-ray's high definition makes the most of the shadows and the like, making this the best video version of the film yet. There's some noise occasionally, but it isn't a deal breaker.

This isn't really a reference quality disc you'll want to unwrap to show your friends your home theater, but it's competent and eminently watchable.

Audio is Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround and it’s also very good. There’s some very nice opportunity for using the rear channels and the producers have done it justice. The “point one” low frequency effects channel is also put to good use. Dialogue comes through clearly as well.

There's also a reasonable set of extras, most of which are in standard definition, unfortunately:

  • Commentary by director Kathryn Bigelow and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth
  • The Making of K-19: The Widowmaker
  • Exploring the Craft: Make-Up Techniques
  • Breaching the Hull
  • It’s in the Details
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD)

We had heard mixed reviews of K-19: the Widowmaker and so didn’t really know what to expect, but ended up mighty pleased – not only with the movie itself but with the good (if not immaculate) Blu-ray presentation from Parmount Home Video.

K-19: The Widowmaker, from Paramount Home Video
137 min. 1080p widescreen (2.35:1), Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround
Starring Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson
Written by Christopher Kyle, Produced and Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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