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Film / Hostile Waters

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Hostile Waters is a 1997 BBC film, based on the nonfiction book of the same name. It features an ensemble cast including Rutger Hauer, Max von Sydow, and Martin Sheen.

In 1986, the Soviet ballistic missile submarine K-219 is on routine patrol off the east coast of the United States when a collision with the USS Aurora, the American attack sub shadowing her, causes catastrophic damage to one of her missile tubes. With a fire threatening both the remaining missiles and the reactor compartment, and the commander of the Aurora (Sheen) looking on with suspicion, Captain Britanov (Hauer) must lead his crew in saving the boat... and saving their sworn enemies from an environmental disaster of unimaginable proportions.


Has nothing to do with Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising. Or with the video game Hostile Waters, despite both being set on submarines.

Hostile Waters provides examples of:

  • Artistic License – History: In addition to significant controversy over the actual cause of the accident aboard K-219, a number of details were changed or omitted:
    • The damaged missile tube is changed from #6 to #13.
    • There is no USS Aurora; the actual American submarine present during the incident was USS Augusta.
    • The film portrays Sergei Preminin as a brand new sailor acting as little more than an errand boy for the officers; in reality, while young, he was a fully trained member of the reactor department.
    • In the film, the crew abandon ship almost immediately after the attempt to rescue Preminin fails. In reality, several attempts were made to tow the sub back to port before excessive flooding and gas buildup forced the Soviets to abandon the vessel.
    • Britanov was not merely dismissed from the Soviet Navy, but was actually charged with negligence, treason, and sabotage. He would spend over six months awaiting trial before the charges were dropped.
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  • Artistic License – Nuclear Physics: At various points in the film, many characters act as though the fire, the reactors melting down, or the sub's impact with the sea floor may set off the nuclear warheads. Others mention the very slightly more plausible idea that the fire may cause the nuclear missiles to launch on their own accord.
  • Brick Joke: "How are things in Moscow?" is Captain Britanov's customary greeting for Security Officer Pshenishny. When the ship's doctor mentions that Pshenishny feels slighted by it, Britanov changes it to, "You smell nice comrade. How are things in Moscow?"
  • The Captain: Captain Second Rank Igor Britanov, commander of the K-219. On the American side, the unnamed commander of the USS Aurora.
  • Chromosome Casting: Lieutenant Curtis, the US Navy watch officer at SOSUS Control, is the only female character with a speaking part and any significant screen time.
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  • Crazy Enough to Work: Chief Engineer Gennady proposes a pair of seemingly mad ideas to prevent further disaster - setting a fire in the missile compartment to burn off the deadly fumes, and deliberately flooding the same compartment to put out the fire. Both are implemented (albeit the first one inadvertently) and both work.
  • Deadly Euphemism: When Preminin is called forward to receive his award for heroism, Captain Britanov states that he is "still on patrol."
  • Deadly Gas: When the missile fuel mixes with seawater, it creates a gas that is both toxic and extremely flammable.
  • Do a Barrel Roll: The K-219 performs a "Crazy Ivan", a sharp turn to allow her sonar to search the area behind her, shortly before the collision.
  • The Engineer: A pair of them figure promninently:
    • Gennady, Chief Engineer, who advises Captain Britanov on all technical matters and suggests some unorthodox solutions to their problems.
    • "Pumps", responsible for maintaining buoyancy and equalizing the pressure in various compartments.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The officer responsible for maintaining buoyancy and venting compartments to maintain equal pressure throughout the sub is known only as "Pumps".
  • A Father to His Men: Britanov cares deeply for the men under his command. Early on, he is seen checking on the health of one of his sailors. As casualties from the accident begin to mount, each loss clearly affects him. When the surviving crew returns to the Soviet Union, many are decorated at his personal recommendation.
  • General Ripper: Many of the senior officers on the American side are portrayed this way - distrustful of the Soviets even under the backdrop of the Reykjavik summit. One goes so far as to suggest that the K-219 should have been sunk at the beginning of the crisis, and would have "if the politicians weren't running things." The lone civilian in the room promptly puts him in his place, loudly informing him that, "That's exactly why the politicians are running things!"
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Preminin successfully lowers the control rods to the sub's reactors, but the pressure buildup in the compartment is enough to trap him inside. He soon suffocates.
  • Hidden Depths: Captain Britanov is surprised to learn that Security Officer Pshenishny, a member of the KGB, plays chess.
  • Hot Sub-on-Sub Action: The accident occurs as a result of USS Aurora shadowing the K-219, leading to a collision between the two subs. When the K-219 begins to behave abnormally as a result of the damage done, the captain of the Aurora prepares to sink her, fearing that she may be preparing to launch her missiles.
  • Ironic Echo: "How are things in Moscow?" Meant initially as a slight to the sub's resident KGB officer, Britanov uses it again on the flight home, after he's gained respect for Pshenishny... because Pshenishny has just been on the radio with Moscow.
  • Peace Conference: The K-219 incident takes place shortly before the start of a major Soviet-American summit in Reykjavik. Its implications for the talks are never far from the minds of both the Soviet and American high commands.
  • Retroactive Recognition: Dominic Monaghan appears in his first film role as a young Soviet sailor.
  • State Sec: Pshenishny, the K-219's security officer, is attached to the crew from the KGB. At first viewed by his shipmates with a combination of suspicion and scorn, he acquits himself well when the accident cuts the control room off from the rear of the boat and he finds himself in charge of the aft compartments.
  • Sub Story: The film's central plot is the accident aboard the Soviet submarine K-219, with most of the film being set on board.
  • 13 Is Unlucky: The missile tube which leaks fuel and ultimately explodes is #13.
  • Two-Keyed Lock: Launching the K-219's missiles requires two keys, one held by Captain Britanov and the other held by Security Officer Pshenishny. The launch procedure is not shown, but the security surrounding the keys is - each key is kept locked in a safe in its holder's cabin, with the safes requiring both a second key and a combination to open. The two key holders are also required to inspect each other's keys periodically, verifying in the presence of another officer that they are "in good order and secure."
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Both the real Captain Britanov and the US Navy - which normally does not comment on submarine operations - vehemently deny that an American submarine collided with K-219. Britanov also sued the filmmakers for other inaccuracies within the film, taking particular umbrage with what he perceived as its portrayal of him as an incompetent commander. The lawsuit was settled out of court.