Film: K19: The Widowmaker aka: K 19 The Widow Maker
"It's my favorite movie about Russian patriotism, in fact, it's the only one!"
— Caleb West (he loved it)
K19: The Widowmaker is a fact-based fictional movie released on July 19, 2002, about the first of many disasters that befell the Soviet submarine of the same name. It was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, of Point Break and The Hurt Locker fame.In 1959, the Soviet Union launches its first nuclear submarine, the K-19 - nicknamed "The Widowmaker" due to many deaths that occurred during manufacturing. The ship is led by Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), aided by executive officer Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson). One day, the ship's reactor cooling system starts to fail, leading the sailors to work together in order to both save the crew's lives as well as prevent a nuclear accident that could trigger World War III.Submarine K-77, a diesel-powered missile submarine that somehow got bought by a Finnish entrepreneur, was used as the main set for this movie, and later served as a museum in Providence, RI until it sank in a storm in 2007. It was scrapped in 2009.The K-19 itself is still preserved in a submarine graveyard, and the former chef on the ship considers buying it and using it as a memorial.
This film contains examples of:
Artistic License - History : K-19 wasn't the USSR's first nuclear sub — that distinction went to K-3, which was an attack sub, and while similarly "reliable" wasn't that prone to serious accidents. K-19 was the first nuclear missile sub.
Artistic License - Nuclear Physics : Nuclear reactors, by very nature, do not create a nuclear explosion if they melt down. Similarly, you can't "cook off" a Nuclear warhead, just the explosive lenses. Although Radtchenko confesses he has no idea what would actually happen, he just speculates.
Radtchenko:The temperature will keep rising 'til it reaches 1,000 degrees, and...
Vostrikov:And? And WHAT?
Radtchenko:No one knows.
However, a nuclear reactor at 1,000 degrees coming in contact with cold water all of a sudden would form a very impressive dirty bomb and certainly wouldn't do the sub crew any good. Larry Bond's book "Crash Dive" recounts a very similar situation aboard the Soviet sub K-219.
And by "very impressive," we mean you'd be hard pressed to find a piece of the sub larger than your hand. Along with probably anything else within a few thousand feet of it.
It also should be pointed out that the reactor technician was quite green. He didn't know what he was talking about because he was only barely qualified for the job, if that.
Actually averted with that violet-blue color in the reactor room. That color? It's Cherenkov radiation. It takes thousands of rads to generate a glow that bright, in a completely unshielded compartment. As said below, solid lead Powered Armor wouldn't have protected the crew in that oven - it was little wonder some broke down crying when contemplating going into there.
Also averted with the way the contamination spreads through the ship's compartments. Exposed to such intensely radioactive steam in completely unsuitable chemical hazmat suits, the irradiated crew members would contaminate everything they touched, or anything that touched them. Combined with radioactive steam leakage, the entire ship quickly would become hot, and that's exactly what happens.
Artistic License - Ships: The crew used a diesel sub for filming and it shows. Nuclear subs are much roomier, though the cramped interiors of a diesel boat just make a better stage for the drama.
Including the crewmen from the original accident. However, they did like the film overall, especially Harrison Ford's performance.
The Captain : Two actually. Polenin, who still has the Captain rank, was downranked to XO for the duration of the exercise, after upsetting Party members. Vostrikov takes his place as the Captain. The rest of the officers do not like this as they feel Vostrikov only got command because he married a party member's daughter.
That's somewhat more complex. Soviet/Russian rank system doesn't maintain a rigid correspondence between the rank and position, so, say a division (nominally a major general billet) can be and often is commanded by a colonel. So Polenin was demoted (from CO to XO), but not downranked, as he kept his Captain rank.
Corrupt Corporate Executive / Obstructive Bureaucrat: More like Corrupt Politburo Party Members. The vast majority of the K-19 problems can be traced to shoddy construction, including the use of substandard parts on critical systems as cost cutting measures and yet the Party still wanted to have it launch on deadline and not fail.
Not to mention that Party Members believe the crew can deal with the radiation contamination, just by barking even more orders and eating fresh fruit.
Cruel and Unusual Death: Every single person on the reactor-repair crew. The film shows, in excruciating detail, the toll the radiation took on their bodies.
Distant Finale: There's an epilogue that takes place 28 years after the main body of the film, that shows the surviving crew members reuniting to finally give the seven heroes a proper tribute.
Downer Ending: Due to the politics of the Soviet Union, the men that sacrificed their lives so that the rest of the crew could survive got little to no merit; several more crew member would have health complications for the rest of the lives, some even succumbing to cancer; and everyone got slapped with basically a gag-order that prevented them from talking about the events of the K-19 disaster.
A Father to His Men : Both Captains, but Polenin moreso than Vostrikov, even if the dynamics between both captains actually make Polenin feel more like the Team Mom of the crew.
Fingore: While unloading a torpedo, a sailor's hand gets mangled when its caught in the chain pulley.
For Doom the Bell Tolls: The song "Reactor" from the soundtrack, which plays during the reactor repairs, opens with this, emphasizing what is going to happen to the crew members going into the reactor.
Foreshadowing: The reactor officer constantly tapping on the pressure gages.
Hazmat Suit: Unfortunately, the Quartermaster's office screwed up and gave them suits rated for chemical hazards instead of radiation hazards. Not that it would make much difference. No hazmat suit short of solid lead Powered Armor could really protect from the radiation of the live nuclear reactor, and even that not all that well. Modern radiation hazmat suits mainly protect the wearer from radioactive material contamination, being just a slightly beefed up chemical suit.
Heroic Sacrifice: The second half of the movie is pretty much a series of these.
Ironic Echo: At the beginning of the film, when a drill supervised by party members, Polenin gives his own name when asked who is the person resposible for such failure. When the reactor fails and Vostrikov demands who is responsible for the reactor failure, Polenin gives Vostrikov's own name and the new reactor officer he brought into the sub as the ones responsible.
Jerkass Has a Point: Vostrikov pushing people to the edge early in the film, while stressing his crew badly, eventually proves useful as it allows them to operate better once the reactor fails.
Let Them Die Happy: The poor soldiers who sacrificed themselves to prevent K-19 from going critical.
It's also usually considered bad luck to have two captains on one ship.
The Neidermeyer : Vostrikov is portrayed like this at the beginning of the film, he gets better as the film progresses. He eventually comes to the realization that his duty to his men is more important than the duty to the Soviet Union when the party members make it clear they care more about looks / public opinion than the lives of the men under his command.
One reviewer remarked that they were the most American and Irish Russians ever, though at one point Harrison Ford himself starts to sound more Irish than Russian, which he probably picked up from hanging out with Liam Neeson too much. Quite a few of the other sailors (those who weren't Russian-born) have wobbly accents, too.
Patriotic Fervor: What drives some of the people that willingly went into the reactor.
Ominous Latin Chanting: The song Reactor, played whenever the crew has to go into the reactor and fix the cooling system.
The So-Called Coward : Lt. Radtchenko, who suffered a total nervous breakdown and did not assist in the first effort to repair the cooling system for the reactor, does the reparations all by himself when the first efforts failed later in the voyage, spending more time inside the reactor than any other men.
Title Drop: Polyenin notes that the crew is beginning to call the ship the Widowmaker when Vostrikov asks for a status report, and Radtchenko said that if they fail to fix the coolant leak, it would be Hiroshima all over again, a nod to the actual nickname the K-19 got in real life.
Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The film plays fast and loose with the facts, abandoning them whenever it allows to play up the Rule of Drama. Just to name a few, it conflates the first and the second accidents with the titular sub while completely forgetting the third, changes its nickname, and adds a lot of Cold War cliches like the crew mooning Americans.
Vomit Indiscretion Shot: When the repair crew leaves the reactor room, their first action is to puke. Vomiting is, by the way, one of the symptoms of fatal radiation poisoning.
World War III : Vostrikov tells the crew that because an American destroyer is trailing them too closely, and very close to a NATO base, he fears that if the sub goes critical and the destroyer gets caught up in it, then America/NATO might misunderstand and nuke Russia in retaliation.