I thought an English-language film made for mass consumption in the United States would never come close to capturing the essence of the Soviet Union. K-19: The Widowmaker proved me wrong.
Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson headline an outstanding cast, full of role players who deliver a stunning performance as a 1961 Soviet submarine crew. Neeson steals the show as demoted Captain Mikhail Polenin, who has to accept the post of Executive Officer when Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Ford) takes over the experimental K-19 submarine. The tension between the current and former captain is one of the film's main themes, and brings out the other themes perfectly.
The battle of wills exposes the sensibilities of the crew, allowing other actors to shine. Neeson and Ford act as constant backdrop for the brilliant performance of the secondary players. Neeson plays off the crew especially well and allows a couple of unknown actors a chance at a "Best Supporting Actor" Oscar.
The visual effects and the underwater action scenes are top notch and blow away every submarine movie made to date. The thundering screech of K-19 breaking through a polar ice cap, or the hull slowly imploding at critical depth are done so well that the audience can't help but feel terrified.
But for all the great special effects and casting, the best part of the film is the subtle way in which director Kathryn Bigelow portrays the helplessness of Soviet-era Russians. If you care to notice, it is obvious from the first scene to the last just how frustrating and petty the Soviet system really was. Russia is a country of contradictions, and K-19 portrayed it like no other movie could.
The Widowmaker is in the same league as The Hunt for the Red October and Das Boot. The German-made Das Boot showed the submarine for what it is--a floating casket. Dare I say, K-19 did it better. K-19 also manages to add the dread and menace of the nuclear-era submarine just like Red October did. However, Bigelow's picture does so with better cinematography, better special effects and with a base in truth--as horrible as the truth may be.