Please welcome our newest contributor to 10YA, Mike Bookey, who by day is the A&C editor at the Inlander, the alt-weekly of Spokane. Please enjoy his first re-view, complete with Harrison Ford’s awful Russian accent.
K-19: The Widowmaker
By Mike Bookey
When you move to Los Angeles and find someone trolling the street with free movie tickets to something called an “advanced screening” you lustfully snatch those tickets. And you especially take those tickets if you are a first-year film student who originates from Seattle and believes that “advanced screening” might as well be an invitation into the champagne and nose jobs Hollywood lifestyle of which you expect to inevitably become a member.
So I gladly accepted that ticket, because that aforementioned freshman film student from about 80 words ago? That was actually me. I know…you likely already discovered that because you’re a movie fan and as such are used to such sorts of storytelling conventions. I remember the excitement with which two of my dorm-mates and I traveled into Santa Monica to line up for this “advanced screening” of a film called K-19.
We knew nothing about K-19.Was it about a genetically enhanced police dog? Maybe a comedy about a bingo card misprint? Perhaps a meditation on the pairings of random prime numbers and letters? Had the dude who made the tickets accidentally written down the number of his parking spot where the title was to be printed?
We knew nothing about this film because we’d yet to discover IMDB because the future had yet to arrive. It was November of 2001 and we just assumed there wasn’t going to be a future, let alone one that would let you know everything about every movie ever. These were uncertain times when we all assumed the world was about to blow up.
So, what a perfect time for a war movie!
We stood in line for an hour before being ushered into a massive theater. There was a brief introduction from a guy in a suit with slicked-back hair — adhering perfectly to my preconception of a Hollywood guy — and then the movie started.
I remember a few specific things about this movie.
1. It was a historically accurate film about the 1961 deployment of a Soviet nuclear submarine with missile-launching capabilities.
2. It made me feel bad for people whose fate it is to work on submarines.
3. The guy next to me covered up a fart by timing the flatulence with a faked cough.
4. Harrison Ford was in it.
5. So was Liam Neeson.
6. Most of the special effects weren’t yet finalized, so several scenes looked like something from a Game Boy screen.
7. Few, if any, conversations I engaged in during the weeks following this screening did not mention the fact that I saw a movie before it came out. This was how you bragged before Facebook came along.
8. The movie didn’t come out in theaters until months later, at which point I’d almost forgotten I’d already seen it.
9. When it was finally released to the unwashed masses in July of 2012, the name had been lengthened to K-19: The Widowmaker.
10. The film kind of sucked.
I just saw this movie again last week for the first time since that elite screening. Unlike rare wines and Ken Griffey Jr. baseball cards, the decade did not enhance its value.
The time did, however, bring me back to my freshman year of college and all its awkwardness while also transforming the film into a key piece of cinematic trivia. I’d forgotten, or perhaps never known, that Kathryn Bigelow directed K-19. It was the last feature she’d direct until she won an Oscar for Hurt Locker in 2008. Good for her. And good for the people who let her direct another feature film after K-19 came up about $65 million short of its production cost at the box office.
So yeah, that was interesting.
As for the film itself, well, that’s also interesting in that we see Harrison Ford, as Captain Vostrikov, performing with an embarrassing Russian accent that sounds like it might have been plucked from one of the Nazi extras in an during his Indiana Jones days. And then there’s Liam Neeson in his post-Schindler wandering days. You know, still recovering from co-starring with Jar Jar Binks and dreaming of 2012 when he could just show up, spit out a few angry lines and get paid a pornographic amount of money for doing so.
I’d somehow forgotten to register in my memory bank how horribly things go for every character involved in the film. Shit is fucked from the get-go, especially when they bring a nervous and young Peter Sarsgaard to look after the reactor after it’s discovered that the previous nuclear technician was a drunk. Hell, he’s Russian, give the guy a break. But they can’t, because this is history. This actually happened, which is perhaps the most appealing aspect of K-19.
The submarine does, however, experience some successes along the way, like when the Captain, becoming drunker by the second with power, takes the ship into the Artic depths before shooting up through the ice and celebrating by cocking off a test missile. Hooray, say the commies, but only for about eight minutes of screen time because soon it’s back to panic mode. The reactor promptly begins to overheat and radiation is leaking throughout the ship. But the captain won’t let them do anything about it, even when American ships offer help, because he’s a huge, huge asshole. This is why Neeson and company stage a coup.
Yes, this is the point at which the film becomes ridiculous, but this actually happened so you can’t call it ridiculous. Again, it’s just history. People get all burned up trying to fix the reactor and others drowned. All the while, everyone is getting poisoned with radiation.
The film concludes with a scene set in 1989 — I guess you could call this an epilogue — during which the captain goes to visit with Neeson’s character. Both of them are supposed to look aged, but ultimately appear not far off from their 2012 selves as they finally bring an end to this abysmal action flick.
My 2012 self was even less impressed with the film, considering there was no Hollywood slickster in my living room to introduce the screening. And I didn’t get to brag about seeing it, either. I did, however, get to remember the days when a free movie ticket was still exciting and Harrison Ford didn’t look like his skin was falling off.