K-19: The Widowmaker is a 2002 submarine thriller film about the first of many disasters that befell the Soviet submarine K-19.
K-19: The Widowmaker was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, and stars Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. The screenplay was adapted by Christopher Kyle, with the story written by Louis Nowra, based on real life events depicted in a book by Peter Huchthausen. The film is an international co-production between the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Canada.
In 1961, the Soviet Union launches its first ballistic missile nuclear submarine, the K-19. Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), aided by executive officer Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson). Polenin, the original captain, and the crew have served together for some time, but Vostrikov's appointment is alleged to have been aided by his wife's political connections. During his first inspection, Vostrikov discovers the reactor officer to be drunk and asleep on duty and sacks him, ordering Polenin to request a replacement.
The new reactor officer, Vadim Radtchenko (Peter Sarsgaard), arrives direct from nuclear school, fresh from the naval academy. Before the launch, the medical officer is killed when struck by an oncoming truck, and is replaced by the command's foremost medical officer, an army officer, never having been out to sea and prone to motion sickness. During the official launch of the K-19, the bottle of champagne fails to break when it strikes the bow, known to be a sign of ill fortune.
The crew's performance improves and their first mission starts. The K-19 is to surface in the Arctic to fire an unarmed ballistic missile as a test, then to patrol a zone in the Atlantic within range of New York City and Washington D.C. To test the submarine's limits, Vostrikov orders the K-19 to submerge past its maximum operational depth of 250 meters to its "crush depth" (300 meters), then surface rapidly at full-speed to break through the Arctic pack-ice, estimated at no more than one metre thick. Polenin regards this maneuver as dangerous and storms off the bridge. Scraping along the underside of the ice, the K-19 breaks through with no apparent damage. The test missile is launched successfully.
On the second part of its mission, a pipe carrying coolant to the reactor cooling system springs a leak and then bursts completely. Polenin and Vostrikov are informed that once the nuclear reactor reaches 1000 °C, the nuclear reactor will explode. Control rods are inserted to stop the reactor, but without coolant the reactor temperature continues to rise rapidly. Polenin and Radtchenko learn back-up coolant systems are not installed. The K-19 surfaces to contact fleet command about the accident and await orders. The cable for the long-range transmitter antenna on the conning tower, however, is damaged. Vostrikov assumes his surfacing maneuver in the Arctic caused the damage.
An engineering team conceives a plan to rig a makeshift coolant system, but Polenin discovers the submarine has been provided with chemical suits rather than radiation suits. The first group emerges vomiting and heavily blistered; the second team succeed in cooling the reactor, but many are severely ill with radiation poisoning. As radiation levels slowly rise inside the ship, the submarine surfaces and most of the crewmen are ordered topside.
Vostrikov is informed that a helicopter is approaching, but it is a United States Navy helicopter from a nearby destroyer. Asking if the K-19 requires assistance, Vostrikov tells the destroyer "no" and refuses to allow the Americans anywhere near K-19. Back in the Soviet Union, the government worries about the condition of the K-19.
Making its way toward a group of Diesel submarines in the south, its pipework ruptures and the temperature begins to rise once again, forcing Vostrikov to dive and quell a mutiny. The second repair is successful, but the engineer is certain to die from radiation poisoning. Captain Vostrikov drags him from the reactor.
The K-19 finally reaches to the Diesel submarines, however, the Soviet leadership orders him to confine the crew on the submarine until a freighter can pick them up. Knowing it would be too dangerous to stay, Vostrikov orders the crew to be evacuated to the Diesel submarines, despite knowing he will most likely lose his command and be sent to a gulag. After the incident, Captain Vostrikov is tried for endangering the mission and disobeying a direct order, but Polenin comes to his defense, resulting in charges being dropped.
Later in 1989, an aged Captain Vostrikov meets Polenin on the anniversary of the day they were rescued. The commanders enter a cemetery where K-19 survivors have met since the incident. Vostrikov is visibly moved as he greets the men and informs them that he nominated the crewmen who died from radiation poisoning — 28 in total — for the Hero of the Soviet Union award, but was told the honor was reserved for combat veterans.
"The Widowmaker" nickname was used only in the film. In real life, the submarine had no nickname until the nuclear accident on July 5, 1961, when she got her actual nickname "Hiroshima".
K-19: The Widowmaker cost $100 million to produce, but gross returns were only $35 million in the United States and $30.5 million internationally. The film was not financed by a major studio (National Geographic was owned by National Geographic Partners, a joint venture with 21st Century Fox and The National Geographic Society), making it one of the most expensive independent films to-date. K-19: The Widowmaker was filmed in Canada, specifically Toronto, Ontario; Gimli, Manitoba; and Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The producers made some efforts to work with the original crew of K-19, who took exception to the first version of the script available to them. The submarine's captain presented an open letter to the actors and production team, and a group of officers and crew members presented another. In a later script, several scenes were cut, and the names of the crew changed at the request of the crew members and their families.
The most significant difference between the plot and the historical events is the scene that replaces an incident where the captain threw almost all the submarine's small arms overboard out of concern about the possibility of a mutiny; the film instead portrays an actual attempt at mutiny.
The Hotel-class submarine K-19 was portrayed in the film by the Juliett-class K-77, which was significantly modified for the role. Her Majesty's Canadian Submarine Ojibwa portrayed the Soviet Whiskey-class submarine S-270. HMCS Terra Nova portrayed USS Decatur. The Canadian Halifax Shipyards stood in for the Sevmash shipyard of northern Russia.
Klaus Badelt wrote the film's late-Romantic-styled score.
K-19: The Widowmaker received mixed reviews with a total of 60% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. It is summarized as being "A gripping drama even though the filmmakers have taken liberties with the facts."
When K-19: The Widowmaker was premiered in Russia in October 2002, 52 veterans of the K-19 submarine accepted flights to the Saint Petersburg premiere; despite what they saw as technical as well as historical compromises, they praised the film and in particular the performance of Harrison Ford.
In his review, film critic Roger Ebert compared K-19: The Widowmaker to other classic films of the genre, "Movies involving submarines have the logic of chess: The longer the game goes, the fewer the possible remaining moves. 'K-19: The Widowmaker' joins a tradition that includes Das Boot and The Hunt for Red October and goes all the way back to Run Silent, Run Deep. The variables are always oxygen, water pressure and the enemy. Can the men breathe, will the sub implode, will depth charges destroy it?"