Kathryn Bigelow’s Soviet submarine drama K-19: The Widowmaker had a no-doubt premise, a top-tier movie star, and an established, bankable action director. It’s the kind of total package that studio executives snuggle up to as they drift off to sleep.
Naturally, the film was a total disaster.
To understand how K-19 went so wrong, let’s turn to a story Bigelow herself shared in Time Magazine.
“I remember sitting in some executive’s office, and they said, ‘O.K., but who are the good guys?’ ‘What do you mean? The Russians are the good guys.’ ‘No, I mean who are the Americans?’
That quote has mysterious depths. Stare at it too long and you might see sounds or swallow your tongue. Here was Bigelow—still at that time known primarily for the megahit Point Break—peddling a tale about a heroic crew racing against time to avert nuclear disaster. The stakes: no less than the survival of every living being in the world. The story contains tension, danger, sacrifice, and a couple of meaty roles to attract big names for the poster. And the story happened to be 100%, absolutely true. Roll your money wheelbarrow to the back of the line, please.
The only way we could make more money is if the submarines make out.
But even for an America that’s left the Cold War behind, that’s shifted its attention to the burgeoning superpower of China or the specter of global terrorism, the fact that the story’s main characters wear Russian uniforms was enough to transform K-19 from no-brainer to a tough sale. The true story of the K-19—not actually called “The Widowmaker” by anybody, but given the far-sketchier nickname of “The Hiroshima” after the incident—remained classified until the 1990s, 30 years after it nearly wrecked the world.
In July of 1961, the ship was performing maneuvers out in the Arctic, pretending to be an American sub attacking Moscow. The Cold War was good like that. On the way home, the K-19 sprung a reactor leak that turned the ship into a nuclear oven. Considering the state of international relations, everyone reasonably presumed a seaborne meltdown could be perceived as an act of war and so, rather than allow their deaths to put fingers on the big red buttons, the ship’s crew underwent drastic, deadly measures to save the reactor. If you didn’t start your day wrestling with a giant cancerous rat for the last known can of chicken soup, then you probably know how the story ends.
With yellow shirts and, somehow, Fredo Corleone.
Bigelow’s first attempt to finance a film adaptation was halted by the release and mediocre box office of the 2000 sub drama U-571, and so, frustrated, Bigelow turned her attention to The Weight of Water, a movie that developed a toxic reputation at festivals before languishing away on a distributor’s shelf. That movie eventually made it out into the wild, but not without some problems of its own.
In the space of a few years, Bigelow’s bright career had suddenly flickered. Originally, she had wanted to tell the story of the K-19 crew. Now, she needed to. Bigelow eventually found her funding, but all outside of the traditional studio system, making K-19 the most expensive independent film ever made at that time. So not only did Kathryn Bigelow seemingly need K-19 to be a hit, but so did a bunch of investors whose pockets weren’t as deep as one might expect.
(One of the film’s major contributors was the National Geographic Society, who may have had their plans to enter the big budget movie scene dashed by K-19’s failure. This melancholy little site is still out there, promising that the film is opening this July 19th, every July 19th, the internet equivalent of the Mary Celeste. Somewhere, a marketing guy’s wife stands on the shore, hoping he’ll someday find his way home.)
To be fair, I’ve included a healthy amount of my own speculation into this history, and it’s hard to really know for sure what Bigelow was thinking or what she wasn’t. Maybe Bigelow approached K-19 like just another movie, and maybe the version that finally made it to the screen is exactly the movie she always intended to make. It’s irresponsible for me to just assume that the film was compromised except, well, K-19: The Widowmaker just feels so damned compromised.
“This time, nerds, I can breathe because I’m inside the sub.”
There was a magical time in the movies when all you needed to open your blockbuster was Harrison Ford on the poster, and baby, Harrison Ford is all up on this poster, despite the fact that he’s all kinds of wrong for the part. The term “miscast” doesn’t even cover the notion that fans would line up to see Ford, the most Midwestern-American action star to ever grace the screen, play Captain Vostrikov, the crusty leader in charge of this particularly crusty ship. Worse, somebody allowed Ford to do the part in a blisteringly awful Russian accent, which Ford delivers like he’s trying fit his mouth around the fat part of a soda bottle. In 2013, it seems crazy to think that Ford would have been handed this role while a perfectly good Liam Neeson is standing right there, but in 2002 it was Ford’s name and face that held the burden of bringing the customers.
“Four-Quadrant” is a marketing term meaning that a movie appeals to every demographic, and K-19 does its utmost to be a four-quadrant performer. The threat is appropriately apocalyptic, but surprisingly clean, barely leaving a mark on the crewmen dying of radiation sickness. The K-19 herself is one of the most brightly-lit submarines in the sea, revealing a dull, repetitive set design. The sitcom-style lighting dispels the ship’s shadows and opens the place up. Gone is the claustrophobia needed to bring the setting to life. For a story that could have ended with the annihilation of the world, it’s strangely antiseptic, with all the sharp edges dulled so that it’s safe to handle. Even the film’s cumbersome title suggests a compromise between two different names in an effort to make everyone happy.
“We can all agree that we’ve eliminated ‘Was’sub!?’ as an option, right?”
One hurdle K-19 had to overcome is that the submarine movie is well-traveled. People know what a sub movie is supposed to look like and sound like, and any deviation or experimentation in the form comes off as false. Unless your sub is helmed by Roy Scheider and has a talking dolphin in the crew, your ship better look like a damn submarine. The K-19 doesn’t really cut it in a world where Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot and all of its gloomy tension exists. For a sub movie to make its own mark, it has to find another way to distinguish itself, such as the way Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide filled the cramped setting with Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman’s war, and while there’s a little equivalent tension in K-19 between Neeson and Ford’s characters—and even a minor mutiny subplot—it never really gains traction. Instead, the audience has to decide how invested they are in the struggles of the crew to stop the leak, and the film provides few reasons to get invested, especially since we already know the ending. Films like Crimson Tide and others get around that problem by making the obvious global stakes seem deeply personal, but we get very few hints about the lives of the soldiers away from the sub, or about the people they personally hope to save. Their noble sacrifice is both suitably epic and really, really generic, as if Bigelow expects the fact that the crew is Russian to make us surprised when they start acting like human beings.
This person is in the movie for 10 seconds and is the most significant female in the film. This is not a joke.
K-19: The Widowmaker strikes me as hollow and false. Again, maybe this is exactly Bigelow’s movie, and I’m totally wrong, but she’s never made anything that felt so lifeless and inert before or since. K-19 is little more than a series of facts capably strung together in the proper order, like IKEA furniture that somebody forgot to screw together—it looks like the real thing, but a gentle tap is enough to tear it apart. That just isn’t how Bigelow works. Whether her films are up or down, and she certainly has enough of both directions in her career, they are always personal. Even The Weight of Water, for all of its problems, feels like an artist is guiding the movie in the directions she wants it to go. The film still feels like a statement.
K-19 doesn’t feel like anything other than perhaps a missed opportunity. Bigelow has made a career out of exploring makeshift families, especially within groups of men—the SEALs in Zero Dark Thirty; the bomb squad in The Hurt Locker; the desperate bonds between the main characters in Strange Days; the surfers in Point Break; the bikers in The Loveless; the vampires in Near Dark are like a family of cowboys, and even the girls are covered in dirt and absorbed into the whole. Here, Bigelow has at her disposal a group of men who rely on one another, live and die and each other’s mistakes, and who agree to make sacrifices to save lives. Do they care about the rest of the world, or is the sacrifice only to save the man who sleeps in the next bunk? We’ll never know, because the theme goes almost entirely unexplored. This movie feels like it was shipped in from someone else entirely.
It’s easy to suppose that after Strange Days flopped and Bigelow ran into trouble financing her next projects, that she threw up her hands. She went from being one of the most electric and in-demand young filmmakers to an outsider nearly overnight. It’s hard to imagine men like James Cameron or John McTiernan being given so little rope at that same time. (McTiernan, especially—he directed the legendary bomb Last Action Hero, but still had a new, great Die Hard sequel out two years later.) I’m sure that K-19’s disappointing reception made that film executive, the one who wondered about the Americans, feel pretty good about himself. But K-19’s failure doesn’t seem to come from its premise, but from a filmmaker who’s pushing the material in an uncomfortable direction, a filmmaker exasperated by needing to prove herself again so soon. K-19 feels cynical, which could explain why it failed to connect with pretty much anybody. After its release, Bigelow retreated to television for years, waiting until the right project came calling. Which, of course, eventually, it did.
I’ve wasted an unusual amount of fake ink in this post discussing the business end of K-19, its budget, its failure, and all of that boring stuff. But in trying to appreciate and explore the career of Kathryn Bigelow, it helps to understand how something as impersonal and blank as K-19 can even happen. A career is a weird journey, and it helps to know why sometimes we end up on the calmest, least interesting of seas.
The Kathryn Bigelow Project
7. K-19: The Widowmaker
Bonus: The Loveless