Political Film Society - Newsletter #139 - July 20, 2002

July 20, 2002


K-19: The WidowmakerBy 1960 the United States established an offensive nuclear advantage by placing Polaris submarines with nuclear missiles under the Arctic ice cap, in range of Leningrad and Moscow. Not to be outdone, the Soviet Union rushed construction of a similar submarine, named K-19, for operation by 1961. K-19: The Widowmaker, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is a dramatization of that ill-fated sub's first voyage, with fictionalized crew interactions. Titles at the beginning tell us that in 1961 the United States possessed enough nuclear weapons to destroy the planet ten times, whereas the Soviet Union had enough to blow up the earth twice. They also tell us that the events on which the film was based were kept secret until 1989. When the film begins, the sub's commander is Captain Mikhail Polenin (played by Liam Neeson), who is frustrated that K-19 is such a rinky-dink ship with so many defects that the crew has given the sub the nickname "widowmaker" because they do not expect to live through the first mission. Nevertheless, he keeps his crew happy by paternalistically treating them as "family." Eager to deploy K-19, Party Chairman Nikita Khrushchëv names Captain Alexei Vostrikov (played by Harrison Ford) as the new commander, so Polenin is demoted to his Executive Officer. Yet before the sub starts its mission, ten men are already dead, and there is a bad omen when the champagne bottle fails to shatter at the christening of K-19. Vostrikov obviously has experience as a submarine commander, and he orders drills as soon as the ship is launched to make his crew combat-ready. The contrast between Polenin's "family" and Vostrikov's "crew" comes to the fore on several occasions, as Vostrikov turns down cautious suggestions from Polenin. (Indeed, Vostrikov's personality seems modeled on Richard Widmark in The Bedford Incident (1965), who commands an American nuclear submarine that confronts a Russian nuclear submarine in the Arctic.) After testing the capabilities of the ship and crew, K-19 arrives at the missile-launching site and fires a test missile, the purpose of which is to inform Washington that Moscow has achieved a nuclear parity that will deter any aggressive intentions of President John Kennedy and the American military. Having achieved K-19's mission, however, Moscow orders the sub to proceed to a position off the Atlantic coast, within range of New York and Washington. En route, all hell breaks loose, as the nuclear reactor core suddenly heats up due to a malfunctioning coolant system, raising the possibility of the first nuclear detonation since Hiroshima; if misperceived as a Soviet first strike, aiming to wipe out a nearby American ship and NATO naval base, retaliation from the United States might bring about nuclear war.

The nailbiting intensity of the dilemma tests the mettle of officers and crew, notably those assigned to solve the problem who are exposed to excessive radiation. Throughout, Vostrikov never wavers in making excellent if tough command decisions. However, as radiation leaks from the reactor core into the rest of the sub, the options narrow, while an American destroyer appears nearby, asking whether there is any need for assistance. One option is to accept help from the Americans, but that would entail relinquishing the sub to investigation by the Americans as well as surrendering the crew to an unwelcome interrogation; Vostrikov brands that option as treason. A second option is to scuttle K-19, loading the crew on lifeboats to be picked up by the Americans, but of course a nuclear detonation would occur. Vostrikov instead orders option three-fix the problem in the reactor core. Although the repairs are indeed handled satisfactorily at first, the reactor core starts to heat up a second time. Vostrikov then orders the sub to dive below the surface while insisting that the problem must again be fixed, though clearly a failure to do so appears to entails taking the sub and crew to the bottom of the sea before an inevitable nuclear detonation. The Communist Party officer on board then decides to arrest Vostrikov and to appoint Polenin as the new commander, but Polenin refuses to assume command, has the mutineers arrested, and reinstates Vostrikov as commander. Indeed, there are two personality transformations at this point: Polenin has gained considerable respect for the sagacity of Vostrikov's command decisions, while the latter has developed a more compassionate attitude toward the crew. The problem in the reactor core is fixed, the ship resurfaces, and Vostrikov now surprises everyone by being prepared to surrender the crew to the Americans while scuttling the sub. However, a second Soviet submarine soon appears, accepts the crew after decontamination baths, and another naval vessel is on its way to tow K-19 back to port. From Moscow's perspective, the unusual movements of K-19 serve to indict Vostrikov, whose submarine commander father died in the Gulag, for treason. Titles at the end tell us that he was acquitted but never commanded a submarine again. Titles also inform us that twenty members of the crew eventually died of radiation poisoning, especially those who worked to cool down the reactor core. The film ends at a cemetery, where officers and crew meet in 1989 to pay homage to those who died as a result of the ill-fated K-19 mission. Vostrikov notes that he recommended that those who risked their lives to cool the reactor core should be given the medal "Hero of the Soviet Union," but his request was denied because the actions were not taken in time of war and the mission was unsuccessful. (K-19 is still in the Russian fleet, though decommissioned.) As a film that brings to light facts that have long been kept secret, the Political Film Society has nominated K-19: The Widowmaker for an award as best film exposé of 2002, as well as an award for best film of peace, having eloquently demonstrated the dangers of nuclear accidents during the Cold War. MH.