FF108 - K-19: The Widowmaker

Intro by Ben Harrison

Sailors have a reputation as a superstitious lot, so it is understandable why they would take the wrong message from watching a champagne bottle bounce unbroken off the hull of the submarine they are about to board and take on its maiden voyage. I, a rationalist, look at this moment and I am gratified to see that the hull of the ship and the hull of the wine are both well-made and capable of sustaining an impact without damage.

But this is the moment that earns K-19, the first nuclear powered submarine in the Soviet Navy, its reputation as a death trap. Rushed into service, the ship already has a body count before it is even out of dry dock, owing to the USSR's eagerness to deploy their newest weapon in the nuclear arms race, and now Captain Liam Neeson is going to have to take a half step back and let Captain Harrison Ford take over, creating the perfect Captain XO conflict dynamic that is so widely prevalent in the sub-genre. Heh: "sub genre".

The K-19 is a first strike weapon. It is supposed to lurk around off the east coast of the United States, nuclearly deterring NATO from doing anything the USSR would make them regret. It seems like a simple task, but the ship itself might not be up to it. If you are like me, thinking that this champagne proof boat is as well-made on the inside as it is on the outside, think again! After some pretty intense, borderline foolhardy stress tests at the orders of Captain Ford, the ship successfully fires its test ICBM, but then quickly starts to suffer from engine problems and that is bad because the engine is just as nuclear as the missiles K-19 carries and someone forgot to pack radiation suits.

What the crew had bargained on being a cold war against the United States becomes an extremely hot war against a reactor meltdown as the cooling system has failed them and the only way to fix it is by running a garden hose through an open door into the core. We have seen and enjoyed a couple of Kathryn Bigelow's films before on the podcast, and I am sad to say that unless I can convince John and Adam that Point Break is about a war on banks, this is her last film on the list.

This is far from her strongest work and Harrison Ford's Russian accent is singularly weird, which I hate to say as this show's #1 Ford defender, but there is a lot going on in this film, and Bigelow's particular insight into the male psyche is given a playground of different characters and scenarios, so it is really worth watching. "We deliver or we drown!" on today's Friendly Fire as we review 2002's K-19: The Widowmaker.

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