“Hero” is a word that, 10 months ago, terrorists blasted back to meanings known in an age before it was commonly preceded by words such as “sports” or even “jukebox.” “Military” has preceded “hero” for as long as anyone can remember. The word’s lore and mythology filter its undeniably horrible, ultimate function — its role in war — into a romantic ideal of the noble qualities, brave deeds and beneficence of the warrior.
From All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), one of the first films to break the silence of the screen with cracking artillery and bursting bombs, to the arguable dud of this summer’s Windtalkers, war movies have found themselves shifting between the mettle of pure heroism to a darker alloy of irony. The former is often drenched in tear-jerking, the latter in senseless bloodshed.
Saving Private Ryan(1998), director Steven Spielberg’s violently affecting cinematic memorial to World War II infantrymen, epitomized both for better and worse. A less-moving motion picture, We Were Soldiers (2002) seemed to attempt to do the same for Vietnam, our most ironic war. But this film slipped into the weepy territory of melodrama, with irony lacking in much of the action.
K-19: The Widowmaker mostly steers clear of these misty pitfalls. It makes a few false moves, failing to turn war-movie clichés against themselves — as did Das Boot (1981) that standard for the war movie’s submarine subgenre. Its final death toll may not match the body count of Ryan, but the potential loss is more globally grave. Though both films end on a memorial note, K-19 rings more truly, without the chronic, feel-good muffling of Spielbergian sentimentality.
Basing his script on actual catastrophic events, screenwriter Christopher Kyle (TV’s “Homicide: Life on the Street”) distills them into a drama of true heroes. These men sacrifice their lives performing what would seem to be an impossible task — to literally save the world, their comrades and their own honor. The weight of the irony lies in a national tragic flaw: a foolishly blind faith in the former Soviet Union’s will to power. And it’s a mere Cold War show of strength, not an actual battle, that necessitates these fatally extreme measures.
Director Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days) has proven herself an expert at strapping her vision onto the wildest action and pulling us along for the thrill ride. K-19 may recall Das Boot, director Wolfgang Petersen’s stateside breakout, but Bigelow’s adrenaline-fueled (rather than testosterone-fueled) camera moves have had a spit and polish and ungratuitous agility all her own, at least since Point Break (1991).
With K-19: The Widowmaker, Bigelow has earned her stars and admittance into was has been almost exclusively a men’s club of major action filmmakers. Welcome aboard.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].