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K-19: The Widowmaker

A worthy addition to the ranks of quality submarine dramas, Kathryn Bigelow's K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) bastardizes a long-concealed historical incident with fairly exciting results. Liam Neeson stars as Polenin, a Soviet submarine captain charged with leading the USSR's untested nuclear fleet into a state of premature mission readiness in 1961. But when K-19, the trouble-prone flagship, fails its last-minute missile tests before leaving dock, Polenin is demoted to assist a new captain, party hard-liner Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), who displays absolute confidence (or perhaps blind faith) in the capabilities of the resource-strapped Soviet military machine. Vostrikov, to Polenin's dismay, pushes his wary crew and their rickety vessel beyond all comfortable limits, and eventually the ship's maiden mission is thrown into chaos and terror when a malfunction in the nuclear reactor threatens not only the lives of every man on board, but the stability of a world already on the brink of nuclear disaster. While some critics have complained about K-19: The Widowmaker's elusive historical accuracy and spotty scientific credibility, the few moviegoers not fluent in Cold War maritime disasters or the physical properties of thermonuclear weaponry should find this debut feature-film production from National Geographic a compelling glimpse at precarious arms-race politics, the intense pressure of nuclear crisis management, and the tremendous potential and sacrifice of human heroism. Although K-19 resists invention and the benefit of history takes the teeth out of its central point of drama (it should come as no surprise to most viewers when nuclear war is narrowly averted), its production is handsome, its acting is solid (Peter Sarsgaard is excellent), its premise is believable, and, occasionally, it offers moments of incredibly powerful, and possibly unforgettable, entertainment. Paramount's anamorphic transfer of K-19 (2.35:1) is excellent, and the audio — a key component of all submarine movies — is superb in Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby 2.0 Surround. Extras include a commentary from director Bigelow and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, as well as four featurettes and the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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