Kathryn Bigelow: K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Kathryn Bigelow: K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)

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Kathryn Bigelow jumps from adapting novels to dramatizing history with K-19: The Widowmaker.  The film details two Soviet captains with opposing worldviews colliding over how to command a malfunctioning nuclear submarine during the height of the Cold War.  Andrew and Kyle find themselves at different ends of whether K-19 is an interesting film that is well-served in Bigelow's canon, or a capably assembled potboiler with Bigelow's genre blender dicing the results.

Maiden VoyageAndrewCommentaryBannerK-19: The Widowmaker has put me at an odd place this week.  One thing I hope you'll agree with, it's scads better than The Weight of Water, and there's a lot that I have to say about it.  But what puts my mind in a twist is that if I were watching this film for the first time, completely divorced from the rest of Kathryn Bigelow's filmography, I would have little to say about it outside of some positive notes about the lead performances and the occasional witty shot.  Putting it in Bigelow's canon almost subdues those accomplishments though, because with the attention to detail and criticism of national conflict as a measuring context make it clear how this is a dry run for The Hurt Locker in many ways.  I want to focus more on the former and less on the latter, but this makes me feel weird as I don't like damning with faint praise, and that's all I feel as though I can do in the context of this project.

Kyle Commentary BannerIt is much better than The Weight of Water, though I don't know if I have as much to say about it as you do. I was shocked to see when I sat down to watch it that it was over 2 hours long, because all I really remembered from seeing it long ago was that there is a lengthy sequence with sailors forced into dangerous radiation exposure. Having watched it last Friday, I still don't recall a lot more than that. Here it seems like Bigelow is held down by some tired conventions, making for a movie that falls into that "perfectly fine for what it is" category.

I like your idea of focusing on the "national conflict as a measuring context" idea though — let's go there first?Propaganda for propagandaNewer Andrew cutout commentaryKeep in mind that the film opens with a quote about the relative military capabilities of the Soviets and the Americans.  If we really wanted to, we could have turned the planet into a glass parking lot pretty quick. All the Cold War consisted of was a long game of chicken, always with the currency of life through ground war and conflict, with the goal being to show not the other side who's got the biggest gun - but the population. The key scene to start with on that is when the Soviet troops rally around a propaganda film showing off American atrocities.  We get glimpses of the KKK, various civil rights demonstrations turning to violence, and footage of their atom bomb testing.  Who's benefit is this for?  American propaganda films during World War II were geared toward making us understand civilians on the other side were like us so the war felt justified.

If the civilians are so bad they must be eradicated then the military positioning isn't to show the other side who is mightier, but rather whose vision of the utopia to follow should guide the country forward.  So that propaganda film - followed by the explanation from one of the soldiers about why the other should be eradicated - when combined with the central conflict between Alexi and Misha, expertly framed as equals by Bigelow, isn't about how one country looks to the other.  Instead, it's about how contesting visions of masculinity struggle against each other to come out as top dog through conflict when the world can brush them aside with the flick of a button.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI don't necessarily think we get a picture of the Neeson and Ford characters as un-equal, but I do think the way they are positioned is different. Neeson's character is a little problematic for me because I feel like the intent was to show him as a commander whose leadership style revolved around putting little distance between himself and his crew—a man who refuses to embrace a military structure that dehumanizes individuals (a potent idea in the film)—but he's also pretty clearly shown to be a less effective leader.

His crew makes errors and is sloppy in their performance until Alexi comes in to "push them to the edge." The conflict does work well to examine the duty-bound nationalism of Alexei vs. the Neeson character's approach—but ultimately the film seems to still be upholding a kind of rigid militaristic view of duty and responsibility by honoring Captain Alexei. It also indicates that at some point the Alexei character's sense of blind nationalism may transform into (or be masking) something a bit less mechanical, but I don't get a clear sense of what we're to make of that conflict other than the surface-level clash between leadership styles.I'm with the machineNewer Andrew cutout commentaryI don't accept your reading of Alexei, or even the military in this film, as dehumanizing partly because Alexei takes faith more in the constructs that he can push people to make versus the confidence that Misha inspires.  It's not dehumanizing to take pride in the physical results of their work, which is something that Bigelow goes out of her way to show is important.  When the sub is diving we get an amusing shot that shows their differences in philosophy accordingly.  The sub tilts and Alexei leans in, making him look right side up - while Misha stands shoulder to shoulder with the crew.  That breaks it down as plainly as possible, Alexei stands with the resulting product (sub) and Misha with the crew (faith in mutual confidence).

Bigelow shows in the earlier scene with the doctor and his sudden death how much devotion someone is willing to show to the material necessity another human produces.  The dialogue deliberately avoids dehumanization as well, instead focusing on the role of family and individuals in the military.  Alexei's father isn't a statistic, for example, but someone who clearly had shifting allegiances within the Soviet military hierarchy.  There isn't a moment that outright goes, as so many war films have, "You are a cog in a larger machine", but rather two different ways these commanders measure their manhood against one another and use the national conflict, as well as the lives beneath them, as their grounds to do so.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI don't necessarily disagree that the main conflict is between the two very different ways the commanders assert their own authority—I just don't think the movie is doing anything especially new with that conflict. Much of it seems very standard—we've been here before (I'm actually thinking of instances where the same sort of leadership conflict is played out in sports movies without much else changing), and while the stakes are set especially high here due to the historical context, that doesn't seem to have tons of actual impact on the events. Aside from some reminders of said context and the scene with the propaganda film that you mentioned (which, while brief, is one of the most interesting moments in the movie), a lot of it feels like it could be assembled from parts of other movies. Capably made movies, but nothing that I'm finding to linger on unfortunately.We were hereNewer Andrew cutout commentary I wish you did find this as interesting as me, especially in light of how many war films pummel dehumanization as a plot point and this one steadfastly refutes it.  Somewhat related to that, and an aspect I'm interested in your thoughts on, are the performances.  Now, it's easy to harp on Ford's performance the most since we're used to him playing grumbly Americans, and his accent does waver a bit.  But Liam Neeson and Peter Sarsgaard, but superior actors with considerably more range (even if Neeson is getting shoehorned recently) also warble through their Russian tones a bit.

That got me thinking about how this is the case and it goes back to why K-19 is interesting.  All their performances get me to focus not so much on their nationality or the larger Cold War context, but going back to how that Cold War is just serving as the measuring grounds.  There's some other symbolic aspects to their performances I like, especially the way Sarsgaard's character and quavering accent serve as the refutation of both their philosophies, but I want to know how you feel given how easy it is to quip at them.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI actually really like the performances all around. The fact that the accents are fairly faint works well precisely because it takes our minds off of something as ultimately irrelevant as how perfectly Russian (or not) a particular (English speaking) character sounds. In movies like this, they could ignore accents completely and I'd be fine.

Ford's grumbly-ness is fitting, but he gets to work with a little more subtlety here as his inherent frustration is positioned in part as a response to being pushed into a mission with a timeline and standards he initially objects to. He doesn't fall 100% into a totally new character—he's still Harrison Ford—but it's still much more of a legitimate transformation than most movies we see him in anymore.

Sarsgaard is always great, but he does a really nice job showing someone who's trying to manage a lot of fear and insecurity in an incredibly heavy situation as well.I can't go onNewer Andrew cutout commentaryIt seems like you enjoy most of the elements, what's keeping you from really digging into the film a bit more?



Tiny Kyle CommentaryI think it may go back to what you mentioned at the start — I'm trying to give it some deeper consideration in terms of Bigelow's filmography, but I feel like if I randomly selected K-19 to watch independent of a larger context, I'd think it was an entertaining and well-made movie and then move on. I can see the more interesting elements you've mentioned, but the movie doesn't quite engage me enough past the surface level to get me excited about them.

We'll leave The Hurt Locker for next week, but one more note on that general idea — I feel like we've gotten here via a kind of winding path for Bigelow. (Not one that's surprising necessarily.) We started off with the smaller projects that she had more of a creative hand in, then moved to more mainstream genre and commercial fare — her film-making talent never wavers (and actually improves on a technical level), but I'm more interested in what she has to say when she's got a little more control of the story so far. That said, I'm really interested to look at The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty again, because that seems to be another shift in her career that I'm excited about going forward.Through the menNewer Andrew cutout commentaryThat's why I want to avoid direct comparisons as much as possible and, to be fair, I think damning with faint praise was the wrong way to phrase how I feel about K-19.  It's a very good movie and only suffers because I only caught bits of K-19 in passing and watched The Hurt Locker in its entirety first.  What I'm confronting, now that we've talked about it more, is that the cynical view of the US military that Bigelow uses in The Hurt Locker is more in-line with my philosophical views and the set-pieces she develops are available in such measure and quality that the surprisingly optimistic K-19 gets hurt with its somewhat similar dressing - emphasis on ceremonial armor, war and military feeding some human necessity instead of dehumanizing, importance of realism when needed (love the "wine will slow their radiation metabolism" moment).

That optimism shows in the visuals in some great moments, especially that glorious game that the crew plays in the vast ice fields after being trapped with so much death.  But that optimism just isn't as compelling to me.  Our insight into Alexei and Misha begins and ends at roughly the same point, something that can't be said of the protagonist of The Hurt Locker.  I'm of the opinion that conflict breeds better art, and since K-19 ends on a slightly positive note for both it's just not as compelling.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryThat's a good way of putting it. And I'm all for wine if it helps defend against radiation poisoning.



Newer Andrew cutout commentaryWith that, K-19 is a film I ended up enjoying and finding more interest than I thought.  I didn't love Near Dark the first time I watched it but a select couple of scenes wormed their way into my dreams and now Near Dark is in my canon of great films.  Maybe I'll be dreaming of a tilted Harrison Ford a few months down the road.

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Next: The Hurt Locker!

Bigelow with text

Posted by Andrew

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