The Film That Changed Harrison Ford’s Career: On the 20th Anniversary of K-19: The Widowmaker

“Under no circumstances will I abandon my boat or my crew to the enemy,” spouts an unflinching Harrison Ford. It’s the kind of line reading you’d expect in a Ford movie where he plays the undaunted American hero pitched against long odds. Except here, as Soviet captain Alexi Vostrikov, Ford trades in his fedora for a Russian brush cut, his rugged desirability for a stiff sexlessness, and his patriotic persona for a loathsome zealotry of the Soviet cause.

Kathryn Bigelow’s “K-19: The Widowmaker” had all of the makings of a sure-fire hit. Despite the stars, the against-all-odds story, and the artistic daring, it bombed toward obscurity. No one knew it at the time, but twenty years later, it’s clear: “K-19: The Widowmaker” is Ford’s most consequential movie, a misbegotten role that forever altered his career, and remains a rich text when viewed through the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Set in 1961, “K-19” tells the story of a Soviet Union nuclear submarine, helmed by Vostrikov, that is first sent toward the Arctic to test the capabilities of launching a ballistic missile and then to America’s eastern seaboard. During their voyage, the Soviet crew discover the vessel’s nuclear reactor is leaking. If it continues every man onboard will die. And the ship will explode, thereby causing the destruction of the American destroyer tailing them, leading to World War III. The iron-willed Vostrikov must contend with Mikhail “Misha” Polenin (Liam Neeson), the popular executive officer he replaced as captain, his mutinous crew, and his own bootlicking sense of duty and patriotism to see his men as human rather than pawns of a totalitarian government.

“K-19” offers an instructional lesson on the strengths and limitations, and the responsibility placed upon a leading man. A movie’s quality and financial success can live or die based on his charisma, sex appeal, range, and general presence. It can take years of bouncing around from bit part to bit part and slowly honing one’s craft before an actor is entrusted with that mantle. Few leading men in the history of Hollywood have experienced a twenty-year run like Ford did, beginning with “The Empire Strikes Back” in 1980 to “What Lies Beneath” in 2000. By the time he arrived at “K-19” in 2002, his box office and pop culture hold as the premiere leading man showed few signs of loosening.

“I got plenty of advice to not take that character. He’s not a very nice guy,” recalls an impish Ford in the behind the scenes featurette: “Making of K-19.” By 1991, the Soviet Union had dissolved, thereby symbolically ending the Cold War. Although “K-19” went into production a decade later, the memories from the 44-year proxy conflict were still fresh among audiences. Still, Ford took the role of the taskmaster Soviet sub commander Vostrikov, and it says much about the actor’s bulletproof reputation as a leading man that a major studio, Paramount, not only put money behind this, but made the film a summer release. Fascinatingly, as Vostrikov, Ford turned his back on his best qualities: He sported a hammy Russian accent, and barely brandished his beguiling smile or popped a witty joke. In fact, you spend much of the film despising this heartless character: a man driven solely by an unquestioned loyalty to the party.

While you could say audiences would have identified with Vostrikov if he were merely an American fighting for the US’ sovereignty and safety. His unlikablity goes beyond politics: In “Air Force One” and “Patriot Games,” films in which Ford plays characters espousing the same nationalistic fervor, except for the American neocolonialist cause, he was portrayed as a family man, which allowed him several tender scenes with children and spouses that are missing from the craggy and cold Vostrikov. Here he ignores the clear shortcomings to his boat—a sub rushed out to sea without basic equipment—and throws his men through grueling training exercises. Vostrikov is a detached bore on top of his mission to station a ship with nuclear capabilities outside of the United States as a deterrent.

“K-19” wasn’t the first time Ford bet his star persona against the backdrop of an unlikable character. In Peter Weir’s “The Mosquito Coast” (1986), as the selfish father Allie Fox, his privileged, white male toxicity endangers his family and exploits an Indigenous Central American community. As Rusty Sabich in Alan J. Pakula’s “Presumed Innocent” (1990). Ford portrayed a callous and philandering prosecutor accused of murdering his colleague and lover. Robert Zemeckis’ “What Lies Beneath” (2000) makes him a deranged Hitchcockian killer hellbent on offing his wife to cover up the murder of his former student. Nevertheless, his follow up to “What Lies Beneath,” “K-19,” was his biggest risk. In fact, it’s difficult to think of an A-list star playing two more unlikable characters back-to-back than Ford in “What Lies Beneath” and “K-19.” The closest might be Robin Williams in “One Hour Photo” and “Insomnia” (coincidently, both were released the same year as “K-19”). Still, unlike Williams, a comedian turned dramatic actor, in that regard occupying a far more liminal dramatic space, Ford personified the American hero to the point of playing the U.S. president fighting against Communist Soviet terrorists in “Air Force One.”

Earning only $65.7 million on a $90 million budget, the box office for “K-19” fell far short of the lofty standards set by Ford’s turns as Indiana Jones, Han Solo, and Jack Ryan. Nor did it match his romantic comedies (“Working Girl” and “Six Days, Seven Nights”). The film currently holds a 60% on Rotten Tomatoes with critic Stanley Kauffmann writing for the New Republic: “Why did movie moguls think that this was the right moment for a tale of unflinching loyalty to the Soviet Union?” Ford’s next eight out of ten films after “K-19” similarly bombed at the box office (the fourth Indiana Jones and “42” being the exceptions). And Bigelow took a six-year break from directing until returning with her Best Picture winning film “The Hurt Locker.”

While Ford’s subversions often garnered his best performances, the rejection by audiences of his Soviet turn in “K-19” recalls James Baldwin’s observations regarding star personas in The Devil Finds Work: “No one, for example, will ever know whether Katharine Hepburn or Clark Gable—or John Wayne—can, or could, really act or not, nor does anyone care… One does not go to see them act: one goes to watch them be.” Because even in Ford’s most off-kilter choices, his characters’ endearing (and sometimes caustic) single-mindedness have bound them together. That independent streak is rendered mute when he plays Vostrikov, a man subservient to the totalitarian whims of empire building through mutually assured destruction (even in a militaristic movie like “Clear and Present Danger” Ford’s Jack Ryan defied orders).

And yet, “K-19” isn’t a bad movie. It swims in the wake of “Das Boot” and “Crimson Tide” as a sharp interrogation of the pressures inflicted upon hyper-masculine men confined to an unwinnable space by their hawkish government. At the right moments, DP Jeff Cronenweth (“The Social Network”) and Bigelow’s gliding camera transcend the tight areas of the sub: the opening training scene tracks the actors with tight close-ups as they wind through the narrow hallways of the sub from the engine room to the periscope. The rapid fire cutting by Walter Murch only adds to the freedom of movement.

In other instances, their lens barely captures all of the moving parts, the petty mechanitions for power in compositions favoring a claustrophobic physicality of men pushed together in control rooms. The missile launch scene, for instance, captures sailors so cramped against the steel walls of gears and buttons, they blend in against the ship’s robotics, thereby becoming mechanical in their stiffness too. Although Bigelow exercised zero quality control for each actor’s respective accents—some like Neeson speak in a low growl, Ford relies on a bundle of affectations, and some aren’t even trying—those choices do not deter the film’s dramatic heft.

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