DVD Review: Kathryn Bigelow’s K-19: The Widowmaker on Paramount Home Video

For now, this disc should appeal to Bigelow’s more ardent fans.

K-19: The Widowmaker

Kathryn Bigelow’s K-19: The Widowmaker is not without allegorical implications. The crew aboard the Russian sub K-19 gets the skinny on American double standards via newsreel footage (glamour shots of American suburbia interspliced with thorny images of the KKK in action) that might as well have been edited by Mr. Eisenstein himself. If Cpt. Alexi Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) is the destructive Russian worker, then K-19 is his Bolshevik platform. Capt. Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson) butts ideological heads with Vostrikov when the latter is placed in command of the film’s nuclear submarine. The ship’s crew scoffs at religious icons though most put their faith in the power of the machine. It’s easy to read the film as an allegory for the fall of communism yet Bigelow doesn’t so much condemn K-19 as she does Vostrikov’s treatment of the machine. The director extols the tireless perseverance of the ship’s workers, expertly weighing and juggling parallel tug-of-wars (Polenin vs. Vostrikov, inevitable death or American surrender). Those unfamiliar with the true-life story of the K-19 will surely benefit from said ignorance (if the film’s first half is thoroughly tiresome, the second half is anything but). Still, Bigelow has Neeson’s Polenin make a dubious 360-degree turn that feels wholly disingenuous, compromising her proudly-we-stand rhetoric with a mutiny-within-a-mutiny that smells an awful lot like a trick ending. Those wary of an American-produced paean to Mother Russia’s finest will miss the subtle, conflicted propaganda at work here. If you doubt the ballsiness of this sometimes conflicted experiment, check out the font size of Bigelow’s closing credit. First Sergei, then Lena, now Kathryn. Who knew?


Paramount Home Video presents K-19: The Widowmaker in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen on this DVD edition of the film. Blacks are rock solid and skin tones are dead-on though edge enhancement is noticeable throughout, sometimes to a distracting fault. Far superior is the expansive Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. What with all the bumping and grinding the film’s sub gets to do for two-hours-plus, it’s a small miracle that the sound on this disc never disappoints.


First up on this DVD edition of K-19: The Widowmaker is a vastly enjoyable commentary track by director Kathryn Bigelow and cinematographer Jeff Croneweth. Even when they’re talking at length about their time in Russia and the film’s grueling shooting schedule, Bigelow and Croneweth are incredibly easy to listen to. Though it initially looks like an extended trailer of the film, the making-of documentary included here covers all aspects of the film’s production. If brevity is the soul of wit, far superior are three short featurettes that follow: “Exploring the Craft: Make-Up Techniques,” “Breaching the Hull” and “It’s in the Details.” Also available is the film’s theatrical trailer.


K-19: The Widowmaker may not be a keeper, but Bigelow’s films do lend themselves to repeat viewings. For now, this disc should appeal to her more ardent fans.

 Cast: Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Sam Spruell, Christian Camargo, Roman Podhora, Sam Redford, Steve Nicolson, Ravil Isyanov, Tim Woodward, Lex Shrapnel, Shaun Benson, Kristen Holden-Reid  Director: Kathryn Bigelow  Screenwriter: Christopher Kyle  Distributor: Paramount Home Video  Running Time: 135 min  Rating: PG-13  Year: 2002  Release Date: December 10, 2002  Buy: Video, Soundtrack

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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