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Film / K-19: The Widowmaker

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"It's my favorite movie about Russian patriotism. In fact, it's the only one!"
Caleb West

K-19: 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 (1991) and The Hurt Locker fame.

In 1959, the Soviet Union launches its first nuclear powered ballistic missile 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 served in the Soviet and then Russian Navy until 2002. In 2003, the boat was scrapped with the exception of the sail to be used as a memorial for the fallen sailors.

K-19: The Widowmaker provides examples of:

  • Artistic License – Awards: In the epilogue, Vostrikov says that he nominated the men for Hero of the Soviet Union, but it was denied by the Central Committee because it was not wartime and merely an accident. In reality, the award of Hero of the Soviet Union was not a wartime decoration. It was awarded to Soviet and foreign citizens for "heroic feats in service to the Soviet state and society." In fact, multiple individuals who were involved in the cleanup of Chernobyl were awarded it.
  • 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.
    • During the accident, there never was any attempted mutiny as depicted in the film. However, the Captain was so concerned there might be one that he ordered all the small arms on the ship thrown overboard, except for a few pistols which he kept for himself and his most trusted men.
    • The nickname "The Widowmaker" is completely made up. K19 never did have that title, though so many sailors and workers died during its construction that such a nickname would certainly be appropriate. In Real Life, it was eventually nicknamed "Hiroshima" after the nuclear accident.
  • Artistic License – Nuclear Physics:
    • Nuclear reactors, by their very nature, do not produce a nuclear explosion when they melt down. Similarly, it is not possible to "cook" a nuclear warhead, only the explosive lenses. Partially averted because although Radtchenko admits that he has no idea what would actually happen, he can only speculate. At the time, the number of Soviet ships with nuclear reactors could be counted on the fingers of one hand. The K-19 was the second Soviet ship powered by a nuclear reactor. Radtchenko himself admits that no one knew at the time what would happen when the reactor reached 1,000 degrees, because it was an event that had never happened before. Although the theory that once it reached that level of heat it would cause an explosion that, if it involved the warheads, would go nuclear, is wrong, it is not wrong that there were fears at the time that this outcome would occur.
      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. The closest thing to a nuclear reactor suddenly exploding with no warning ever caught on film was HMS Barham blowing herself to bits while sinking in 1941. The newsreels say it was an aft magazine explosion.
    • 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, a seething cauldron of high-energy gamma radiation. Hell on Earth. It was little wonder some broke down crying when contemplating going into there — no amount of bullshit could convince them they weren't on suicide missions. They were right.
    • 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 crewmembers 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. A Soviet Project 651 submarine, like K-77 (the one used by the filmmakers), actually had a one-foot-wider beam than K-19 (the titular boat). They were also much quieter than early Soviet nuclear-powered submarines, had enormous batteries, and could stay submerged for about a month before surfacing up to 800 nautical miles away.
  • Based on a True Story: Some feel it's more of a Very Loosely Based on a True Story. 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.
  • Chromosome Casting: Male example. Justified, given the setting.
  • Crapsaccharine World: How the political officer's propaganda film portrays life in America, contrasting happy civilians with images of the KKK.
    "In American propaganda, you will see how everyone has a car, nice clothes, a nice apartment. But you will never see the truth behind this lie. You will not see police dogs attacking strikers and demonstrators for civil rights. You will not see the beggars on the streets, the homeless, the negro-shantytowns in the south. You will not see the warmongers who threaten the world with nuclear holocaust."
  • 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.
  • Danger Room Cold Open: The film opens with the crew preparing to launch the sub's nuclear missiles. Seconds before launch, a console shorts out, Polenin angrily announces, "The drill is over!" and the K-19 is revealed to still be in port.
  • 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.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: Radtchenko's Heroic Sacrifice is eerily similar to Spock's.
  • 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 crewmembers 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.
  • Drinking on Duty: Pretty much the first thing Vostrikov does upon assuming command is dismiss the chief engineer for being drunk on duty. Unfortunately, the only replacement the Navy can find in time for K-19's maiden voyage is Ensign Newbie Radtchenko.
  • Ensign Newbie: Lt. Radtchenko, who is at his first naval posting out of the academy. And it shows.
  • Failsafe Failure: A single leak in the reactor cooling system is enough to cause a near meltdown. Radtchenko mentions the backup systems were never installed (see No OSHA Compliance below.)
  • Fatal Family Photo: One of the crew members has a photo of his fiancée that he shows off to a fellow crew member at one point. Naturally, he's one of the seven who has to go into the reactor and is fatally irradiated.
  • Fate Worse than Death: One of the crew members opts to jump in the icy North Atlantic waters and make a futile attempt to swim to the American Destroyer rather than go back in the sub. Sadly this also almost certainly resulted in a horrific death as well…
  • 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 it's 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 crewmembers going into the reactor.
  • Foreshadowing: The reactor officer constantly tapping on the pressure gauges.
  • Going Critical: The second half of the film consists of the crew trying to prevent K-19's reactor from going critical, which would kill everyone there, probably destroy the sub, and possibly destroy the nearby American destroyer as well.
  • The Gulag: Vostrikov's father was a Hero of the Soviet Revolution who died a prisoner in a Gulag for unspecified reasons.
  • 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.note 
  • Heroic Sacrifice: The second half of the movie is pretty much a series of these. Subverted at the end, when Vostrikov intends to go down with the ship to stop it falling into the Americans' hands; Polenin tells him that won't be necessary, as they've just been found by another Russian sub.
  • 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.
    • A second instance occurs with the two missile launch sequences - the first a simulated launch of a live missile, the second an actual launch of a missile with an inert warhead. Both are tense moments for the crew, though for different reasons.
  • 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 are not told that they are dying, and are given aspirin as a placebo to disguise the fact that the sub's doctor can't actually do anything for them.
  • Libation for the Dead: Mixed with To Absent Friends: At the reunion in 1989, Polenin pours a glass of the vodka the others were toasting with on the memorial for the men who died from radiation poisoning from working on the reactor. There's also a glass of vodka and a piece of bread visibly set out on the memorial.
  • The Mutiny: Technically Barratry; the political officer attempts to countermand Vostrikov and give command to Polenin so they can abandon ship. He refuses and has them locked up.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: When the reactor cooling system fails, chief technician Pavel Loktev admits to Lieutenant Radtchenko that he noticed something was wrong before K-19 left the base, but underestimated the severity of the problem. This, especially after the silent treatment he receives, makes Pavel's thinking clear.
    Pavel: Lieutenant, I noticed the pumps were drawing too much power, during the turbine tests, but I didn't think it was serious.
    Lieutenant Radtchenko watches him in disbelief and then furiously storms off. Pavel, once alone, slams the cabinet door in frustration.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: The Widowmaker.
  • 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.
  • No Historical Figures Were Harmed: The crewmembers of the K-19 are fictional characters (with fictional names) based on the real persons. For instance, Alexei Vostrikov and Mikhail Polenin were named Nikolai Zateyev and Vasily Arkhipov.
  • No OSHA Compliance:
    • The rushed and frequently shoddy construction of the K-19 is both a recurring theme and the root cause of the reactor accident; either higher quality welding in the cooling system or installation of the backup systems as designed would likely have prevented the disaster.
    • Much is made of the crew being supplied with chemical exposure suits rather than radiation suits. Ultimately subverted, as even the proper equipment would have made little difference to crewmen working next to an out of control reactor.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: To the amusement of some, Harrison Ford seems to alternate between this and bursts of Lzherusskie. It's more egregious with Liam Neeson, however. 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. Joss Ackland, who played Defense Minister Marshal Zolentsov, does not even bother trying to sound "Russian" and sounds every bit as English as he is.
  • Patriotic Fervor: What drives some of the people that willingly went into the reactor.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: More like Corrupt Politburo Party Members. The vast majority of the K-19's 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. The final insult comes when the men who died from radiation poisoning were nominated by Vostrikov for the Hero of the Soviet Union, but were denied on the basis of it not being wartime, and their deaths being the result of an accident.
  • Oh, Crap!: Polenin's reaction when he's told the sub was supplied with chemical suits, rather than radiation suits; as he puts it, "They might as well wear raincoats!" Not that actual radiation suits would have done them much good, though.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: The song Reactor, played whenever the crew has to go into the reactor and fix the cooling system. Although there's plenty of ominous chanting, however, it's not strictly done in Latin. As the music is taken from Richard Einhorn's "Voices of Light", a modern accompaniment to the silent film "The Passion of Joan of Arc", the selections that play during the repair scene are sung in French.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: See Lzherusskie above.
  • Retirony: The first repair crew had only an hour left in their shift when the accident happened.
  • Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony: It does not bode well when the bottle fails to break. A sailor even remarks they're cursed. In Nautical Folklore, it is indeed a bad omen. (It's also usually considered bad luck to have two captains on one ship.)
  • Rushed Into Service: The core of a lot of the problems they run into. The sub was not ready for deployment, but the US had put a ballistic missile submarine to sea and the Soviets felt they needed a response, whether it was ready or not.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: A sailor jumps off the submarine when the alarm sounds off again after one of the rigged coolant pipes fails.
  • Someone Has to Die: Fixing the reactor means enduring massive doses of gamma radiation, with lethal, nightmare-inducing results.
  • Showing Off the Perilous Power Source: Several shots of the reactor, and an ominous overpressure developing in one of its coolant loops, before it lets go.
  • Sub Story: Barring the prologue, epilogue, and a couple of brief scenes in the Kremlin, the entire film takes place aboard the titular submarine.
  • 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.
  • Superweapon Suspense Subversion: The film opens with the crew of the titular submarine preparing to launch a nuclear missile while simultaneously under attack from an enemy sub. However, a short circuit in a control panel prompts the captain to snap, "The drill is over!" and it is revealed that the K-19 is still at dockside, running a training exercise in front of high ranking officers.
  • This Is Not a Drill: Said verbatim when the crew is preparing to launch the test missile.
  • 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.
  • Two-Keyed Lock: Launching one of the K-19's missiles requires keys held by three different officers, as well as automated confirmation of missile launch authority from Moscow – technically requiring a fourth key, as the disk needed for the authorization procedure is locked in a safe.
  • Vehicle Title: The aforementioned K-19.
  • 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 clichés 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 first symptoms of fatal radiation poisoning.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: When the reactor repair fails and it starts to heat up again, one of the crew members jumps overboard and starts to swim toward the nearby American destroyer. We don't see whether he makes it.
  • 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. That would have been a very real fear for 1960s Americans and Soviets. The Aegis defense system, and Ticonderoga-class cruiser, were specifically created so that that the US Navy wouldn't have to fear a Soviet airstrike.