The opening titles explain to viewers that 'K-19: The Widowmaker' is based on a near nuclear disaster in 1961 aboard an experimental Soviet submarine. At a time when Cold War tensions were at their highest, the crew of the ill-fated submersible warship worked together to prevent what could have initiated World War III. Despite the crew's best efforts to save the sub and avert war, the brave soldiers were forced into secrecy, to never share the harrowing events that took place inside the high-tech machine for fear of revealing their test purposes near U.S. waters. Not even a minute into the film, we are made aware of this being their story, which they were never allowed tell for nearly thirty years. Not until the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the collapse of the communist state.
It seems that from the beginning, the nuclear submarine was destined for disaster, as computers kept malfunctioning and it didn't appear ready for the launch deadline. The original captain Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson) is unceremoniously replaced by Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford). During inspection, the intimidating commander finds a drunk and sleeping radiation officer. His replacement is the inexperienced Vadim Radtchenko (Peter Sarsgaard) straight out of the naval academy. The medical officer is killed only a day away from official launch, but quickly replaced by the base's doctor, who gets seasick easily, and with limited supplies. To top things off, the champagne bottle at the ceremony fails to break, and sailors look anxiously at one another.
Six years before her well-deserved Oscar turn on 'The Hurt Locker,' Kathryn Bigelow ('Point Break,' 'Near Dark') helmed this taut and exciting historical thriller about the political tensions which arose within the ship. During a time of ideological turmoil between the two major powers, this one event, as it turns out, was only moments away from possibly setting off nuclear war. And we never knew it until decades later. Looking back at 'K-19,' we catch glimpses of an awarding-winning director already in the making. Bigelow knows how to draw the audience in and put us on the edge of our seats without ever relying on special effects and using only the minimal background. She capitalizes on the enclosed quarters of the sub wonderfully, raising the stress and hostility levels to their breaking point.
While Bigelow's direction is first-rate and often gripping, Harrison Ford's performance adds immensely to the film's suspenseful tone. He brings a demeanor and distinction to the role of a man fully aware of his surroundings. Vostrikov knows that at any moment his power and control over the crew could instantly be taken away, so his decisions become both his demise and his triumph while still remaining cool under pressure. Liam Neeson also does a fine job as the executive officer dealing with the power struggle and coming to terms with following orders he doesn't fully support. The dynamics between the two characters is where most of the tension occurs while Peter Sarsgaard confronts his own fears and limitations as part of his own personal journey.
'K-19: The Widowmaker' doesn't break any new ground or distinguish itself in any one significant way, but it is a very well made thriller about a major event the American public was never made aware of. In spite of some historical inaccuracies, the film offers good entertainment where artistic liberties are a dramatic benefit rather than its detriment. If for nothing else, it serves as a great example of a talented director turning an average story into an engaging movie worth watching.
'K-19: The Widowmaker' arrives on Blu-ray with a mostly good video presentation. Although not as consistent as it probably should be for a production from 2002, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 (2.35:1) encode provides a few scenes that are sometimes stunning, particularly early on in the film. However, those moments seem hindered by other instances of poor, even mediocre, resolution.
The picture is awash with a thin veneer of grain which not only gives the transfer an attractive film-like quality, but adds a gritty feel to the many sequences inside the legendary submarine. Contrast is intentionally on the lower end of the grayscale and remains stable from beginning to end. Black levels are accurate with a few choice scenes of rich inkiness. Interiors are a bit problematic though, with many murky shadows and several instances of distracting crush. The color palette is made by and large of secondary hues, and they appear stable and well rendered. Overall, the image is nicely detailed with strong definition and visibility of the submarine's many nuances and the distinguishing features of uniforms.
Paramount also includes a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack which may not serve as the first choice in showing off one's system, but it has plenty of entertaining, suspenseful moments of underwater action. This is a mostly dialogue-driven affair with most of the musical score limited to the front channels. But rear activity is employed in many scenes taking place all around the submarine. Subtle as it may be, viewers can clearly make out the metallic pings and creaks echoing throughout the soundfield, providing an atmospheric quality to the lossless mix. Character interaction is excellent and intelligible amidst the movie's most anxious-ridden sequences, and low-frequency effects are appropriately powerful to those segments requiring bass. Dynamic range is well-balanced and expansive, creating an engaging soundstage that keeps viewers watching to the very end.
Paramount Home Entertainment releases this Blu-ray edition of 'K-19: The Widowmaker' with an average supplemental package.
'K-19: The Widowmaker' might not have reinvented the genre, but with Kathryn Bigelow at the helm, the film was very well-made and is at times a gripping historical thriller. Performances from the cast are also a strong point, while the rest of the narrative relies on simply being an entertaining ride through an event that was kept secret for nearly thirty years. The Blu-ray edition of 'K-19' arrives with a pleasing picture quality, a slightly better audio presentation, and an acceptable collection of bonus features. Fans are sure to be happy with the results, and everyone else should at least give it a rent.