K-19: The Widowmaker


2002 | 2h 18m |

Inspired by a true story, “K-19: The Widowmaker” follows Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) who, at the height of the Cold War, is ordered to take over command of the nuclear missile submarine K-19, the pride of the Soviet Navy.

In 1961, the Soviet Union launches its first ballistic missile nuclear submarine, the K-19, commanded by Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), aided by executive officer Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson).

Polenin, the original captain, and the crew have served together for some time, but Vostrikov’s appointment is alleged to have been aided by his wife’s political connections, as well as Polenin’s tendency to put the crew’s morale and safety before the pride of the Soviet Union.

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Directed by: Kathryn Bigelow

Starring: Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sarsgaard.

During his first inspection, Vostrikov discovers the reactor officer to be drunk and asleep on duty and sacks him, ordering Polenin to request a replacement.

The new reactor officer, Vadim Radtchenko (Peter Sarsgaard), arrives directly from nuclear school, fresh from the naval academy. Before the launch, the medical officer is killed when struck by an oncoming truck and is replaced by the command’s foremost medical officer, an army officer, never having been out to sea and prone to motion sickness.

During the official launch of the K-19, the bottle of champagne fails to break when it strikes the bow, considered to be a sign of ill fortune (according to some naval traditions, a young woman is supposed to break a bottle of alcoholic/celebratory beverage against a ship’s hull at its christening/maiden launch; if the bottle did not break, it was taken to be an ill omen).

With Captain Vostrikov’s constant drilling, the crew’s performance improves and their first mission starts. The K-19 is to surface in the Arctic to fire an unarmed intercontinental ballistic missile as a test, then to patrol a zone in the Atlantic within striking range of New York City and Washington D.C. as a Soviet deterrent to American ambitions.

To test the submarine’s limits, Vostrikov orders the K-19 to submerge past its maximum operational depth of 250 meters to a depth closer to its “crush depth” (300 meters), then surface rapidly at full-speed to break through the Arctic pack-ice, estimated at no more than one meter thick. Polenin regards this maneuver as dangerous and storms off the bridge. Scraping along the underside of the ice, the K-19 breaks through with no apparent damage.

The test missile is launched successfully. After reporting to naval command about the successful test missile launch, orders return from Moscow to continue with the second part of the mission.

En route to its patrolling area, a pipe carrying coolant to the reactor cooling system springs a leak and then bursts completely. Polenin and Vostrikov are informed that once the nuclear reactor reaches 1000 °C, the nuclear reactor will explode. Control rods are inserted to stop the reactor, but without coolant, the reactor temperature continues to rise rapidly.

During an officers’ review of emergency protocols, Polenin and Radtchenko learn that backup coolant systems were not installed; without these, the protocols are useless, as they are based on the assumption that backup systems are in place. The K-19 surfaces to contact fleet command about the accident and await orders. The cable for the long-range transmitter antenna on the conning tower, however, is damaged, possibly due to the earlier surfacing maneuver in the Arctic.

An engineering team conceives a plan to rig a makeshift coolant system, but Polenin discovers the submarine has been supplied with chemical suits rather than radiation suits. Teams are instructed to work in 10-minute shifts only to limit radiation exposure. The first group emerges vomiting and heavily blistered; the second and third teams succeed in cooling the reactor, but all are severely ill with radiation poisoning.

As radiation levels slowly rise inside the ship, the submarine surfaces and most of the crewmen are ordered topside. Radtchenko, the reactor officer, is initially assigned by Vostrikov to go as part of the third team to finish the operation, but his fear upon witnessing the first team’s radiation injuries overtakes him, and the crew chief enters as part of the third team in his place.

Vostrikov is informed that a helicopter is approaching, but it is a United States Navy helicopter from a nearby destroyer, which has been tailing the K-19. Hailed by the American destroyer and asked if the K-19 requires assistance, Vostrikov tells the destroyer “no” and refuses to allow the Americans anywhere near K-19.

Back in the Soviet Union, the government worries about the condition of the K-19 because it has ceased contact with the fleet command (due to its disabled long-range communicator, which is unknown to fleet command) but has been spotted by Soviet spy aircraft in the vicinity of the American destroyer.

With the hope that fleet command will send some diesel submarines to tow the K-19 back to port, Vostrikov ceases the mission and orders a heading that would return to port, but at a pace that could kill the entire crew with radiation sickness if rescue is not forthcoming. Shortly thereafter, the repair crews’ pipework springs leaks and the reactor temperature begins to rise once again.

This incites unrest among some of the crew, and in an accident, the fuel that had been removed from a torpedo (during the scavenging of piping for the initial reactor repair) ignites, causing a fire in one of the torpedo compartments. Initially ordering the emergency fire suppression system to be activated (which would deprive the fire of oxygen, but suffocate anyone inside that area), Vostrikov is talked down by Polenin, who personally goes to assist the fire crew in putting out the fire.

This leaves Vostrikov facing some hostile crew and officers who longer have Polenin to moderate them, and two officers enact a pre-planned mutiny to remove Vostrikov from command. Radtchenko, who earlier panicked and backed out from joining the repair crews, this time enters the reactor area himself and commences a second repair attempt.

Polenin returns to the command deck after helping put out the torpedo room fire, dejected because only one survivor remained. He sees Vostrikov handcuffed to a ladder, then deceives the mutineers into handing over their weapons and places them under arrest; he then frees Vostrikov.

Believing the repairs to have failed and unaware that Radtchenko had gone in alone to patch up the new leaks, Vostrikov, at the behest of Polenin, tells the crew what has happened, and his rationale for a subsequent dive to attempt another repair; he is afraid that if the reactor were to overheat, it could set off the actual nuclear warheads carried by the K-19 and the accident would destroy not just the K-19 but also the nearby American ship, provoking an American retaliatory attack and possibly inciting nuclear war.

Vostrikov then waits for the crew to respond to his recommendation; the crew subsequently responds in the affirmative, and the K-19 dives. Vostrikov then goes back to the reactor section after hailing Radtchenko and receiving no reply. Rodchenko’s repairs were successful, but he received a heavier dose of radiation than earlier teams, having stayed in 18 minutes to complete his repair.

Unable to see and too weak to properly extricate himself from the reactor chamber, Radtchenko is dragged out personally by Captain Vostrikov. The repairs prevent a reactor meltdown, but radiation is leaking throughout the submarine due to irradiated steam leakage from the reactor’s damage.

A Soviet diesel submarine finally reaches the K-19; however, relaying orders from fleet command, the submarine transmits orders to confine the crew on the submarine until a freighter can pick them up. Knowing it would be too dangerous to stay due to rapidly elevating radiation levels, Vostrikov orders the crew to be evacuated to the diesel submarine, despite knowing he will most likely lose his command and be sent to a gulag for countermanding a direct order.

The crew is evacuated and returns to the Soviet Union, without having to receive assistance from the nearby Americans. After the incident, Captain Vostrikov is tried for endangering the mission and disobeying a direct order, but Polenin and the other officers and crew of the K-19 come to his defense.


Epilogue lead-in text indicates that charges against Captain Vostrikov were dropped, but that the former crew of the K-19is ordered to maintain silence regarding the incident, and Vostrikov is never given command of a submarine again.

All seven men who went into the reactor chamber to effect repairs died of radiation poisoning days after returning home, and twenty other crew members later died from radiation sickness acquired during the incident. It is not until the fall of Communism nearly three decades later that the members of the K-19 crew could openly discuss what happened.

Later in 1989, an aged Captain Vostrikov meets Polenin on the anniversary of the day they were rescued. The commanders enter a cemetery where K-19 survivors have met since the incident.

Vostrikov is visibly moved as he greets the men and informs them that he nominated the crewmen who died from radiation poisoning — 28 in total — for the Hero of the Soviet Union award but was told the honor was reserved for combat veterans. Remarking that “who needs honors from such men,” referring to the committee that turned down his recommendation, Vostrikov toasts the survivors and the deceased crew who sacrificed their lives to honor their duty to their crewmates.

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