Oh Captain, My Captain

What's been with all the submarine movies, huh? We've gone from Hunt for Red October, Crimson Tide, U-571, and now K-19: the Widowmaker. Maybe it's something people have for sweaty men packed next to each other in cramped spaces with their lives on the line. Or maybe there's an obsession with perfecting the submarine pic. In any case, enough people go to see these things that they seem to keep making them.

The motive for K-19 isn't too hard to figure out. Even after you consider the monetary possibilities. As this film is "based on" a true story, the hope is clearly that audiences will be attracted by the air of authenticity and realism surrounding the film. But how real is it? It's sponsored by National Geographic - their first feature film, in fact - and that certainly lends authority to it. But even their materials acknowledge a certain need for dramatization of the story. As near as I can tell from the version of events on their website and the version in the film, was that the characters were largely created for the film, and the events depicted outside of any particular characters were more or less what happened, perhaps with the small American role added to raise the tension.

As I watched the movie - and before I'd looked at National Geographic's web site - I was starting to get the idea this might have been the incident which inspired Tom Clancy's Hunt for Red October. I recalled that Clancy had been interviewed by the U.S. government after his novel came out, because apparently it closely resembled events that he should never have had opportunity to hear. I'm not sure if anyone has publically established what submarine was involved, but I started to believe that there might be enough facts at hand to figure it out.

Perhaps it is my own muddled mind, or the fact that so many submarine movies end up running together, but in my little search to confirm my suspicions, I was sadly humbled to find that Red October featured an attempt by Soviet sailors to defect, not an accident as in K-19. Perhaps when the details on that finally surface in another fifteen years, National Geographic's next submarine film will detail the (semi-) true story behind it.

So, all this talk so far and nothing yet on how *good* the movie is? The fact there is this much to talk about is just a sign of how much K-19 brings to the table before a single frame is lit on the screen. The film treats the material with all due solemnity, without bending to caricature. The few typically sentimental references are brief and not dwelled upon, until the many-years-later reunion at the picture's finale. And as an aside, Ford and Neeson make very interesting old people - here's to hoping they're still acting when they actually look like that.

As I was watching the film, I was stuck for a while trying to decide what the movie was about. The early going has us convinced it's a war of wills between displaced Captain Liam Neeson and newly designated Captain Harrison Ford. The tensions rise between them, and Ford with the rest of the crew. Yet, the storyline is off somehow, not really pushing things along so much as being a theme of following orders no matter the consequences. Then I was considering whether the movie was about the accident with cooling one of the reactors, and the fallout of that, but it took way too long to get there - there was too much plot ahead of it to actually be an introduction to that. Finally, I had to conclude, that this was just about the submarine. The title is only referencing the boat, after all. People often talk about locations as being characters in movies, so why not here? There is a certain amount of actual character we can attribute to K-19 - it's had an unfortunate history before we actually meet it of people dying during its construction - the job has been rushed as the Soviets try to play catch up with the United States - but there is also a lot of pride that has been placed in this vessel as well. As a theory, this seems to hold up well against what had been bothering me - the plot pacing no longer is an issue, then, because it all concerns the boat. Yet it's a somewhat unsatisfying interpretation because we lose the thread of it from time to time - the whole movie isn't really underscoring it.

So do we take the movie as face value as just being about this submarine story that it's about? All the individual moments are well executed from acting to visuals to soundtrack. I'd probably have liked to see some more convincing Russian acting than Ford and Neeson, though perhaps that's a little unfair. I have worked with native Russian speakers, and picked up a few phrases of the language, and been admonished in the process not to "growl so much". Perhaps, as Americans, we have picked up this idea through the media of what Russians are like. From that perspective, I think the accents these name actors used were actually pretty good, much as they'd be if they'd been born to the language, but either my expectations of not hearing the familiar voice behind the accent, or just seeing such a famous actor trying to seem different - something was breaking the illusion for me of him being a Russian Submarine Captain. I think the same performance from any unknown actor would have been just fine for letting us get immersed in the story.

Perhaps, the movie is really about a few themes that are interwoven into the story somewhat loosely. Themes of loyalty, teamwork, and the cost of not taking the time to do a job well. The problem with that is we don't really build upon those themes, and you can't switch between them with any real meaning. As an example here, most of the movie, the Harrison Ford character is basically driving the crew to the edge with seemingly unreasonable drills. Even when things start going rough, he's hard-nosed about fulfilling the mission. Then, in the end, he capitulates and seeks to do the best he can for his crew. There's very little character arc, though. The Captain is treated like a fixture, before and after this change. That's okay, but it's not a strong statement.

You could claim the story is about the redemption of the Harrison Ford Captain character, but the setup in the first act would support the opposite - the redemption of Liam Neeson's pushed-aside Captain. Can we have two somewhat-redemptions and say the movie is about both? No, I don't think so.

I won't claim there is no answer to the question of what the movie is really about, only that the answer eludes me at this time. Perhaps the movie is that much more interesting in its difficulty in analysis, but that's not so much an indicator of the worth of the film as the ability to get too cerebral about what's happening on screen.

Okay, so what's the verdict here? We have a solid, well built film that is riveting to watch, despite a certain lack of strict determinism in the script. The overt plot is strong and compelling enough to keep us interested for a somewhat indulgent length of 138 minutes. It's a good movie, but falls short of being a great one.

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