Wolfgang Petersen’s DAS BOOT is justifiably considered the best submarine movie. Though no expert of submarine films, I recall the dramatically effective ENEMY BELOW with Robert Mitchum, which had a suspenseful and ennobling final scene that left a powerful impression on me as a child. Throughout the film, the two sides ruthlessly clash iron against iron, but when confronted face to face, they acknowledge one another’s humanity. It was one of my first introductions to the human condition and to the world of men: how tribes or nations could hate and be at war with one another but also share a mutual respect. It is one of the most stark political paradoxes. Both sides admire the loyalty to cause and nation of the other side, but this loyalty leads both sides to slaughter one another. To the extent that manhood is defined terms of martial spirit, what a man admires most in the other man also leads to their mutual hatred. A boxer hates his opponent but also respects his courage and toughness.
Kathryn Bigelow, better know for trashy genre films such as NEAR DARK, BLUE STEEL, and STRANGE DAYS, decided for some reason to tackle a subject truly worthy of the medium of film. It is one of a handful of excellent movies about the Cold War era. Too bad it failed at the box-office, which only proves that artistic heroism is as often unsung as martial courage like the one we see in the film.
Perhaps, the submarine movie most Americans are familiar with is the horribly cliched, dull, and politically correct HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER. When even Sean Connery can’t save the picture, it is in deep trouble.
For some reason, the most famous submarine films tend to be about the Other side–the Germans and the Soviets(or the Japanese in the war movie farce 1941). Other than Germany’s heavy reliance on the submarine in WWII, it could be due to the fact that the submarine is associated with stealth, secrecy, and trickery. For Americans to take pride in their democratic openness and brash confidence, the submarine better suits the temperament and agendas of the secretive and subversive Evil Enemy. So in the film ENEMY BELOW, the battle comes down to US destroyer vs German submarine. That said, all these war movies tend to be ‘fair-minded’ in depiction of the ‘enemy’. In the case of DAS BOOT, that was inevitable since it was made by Germans themselves.
But, ENEMY BELOW, HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, and K-19 were made by Hollywood. In this sense, the enemy submarine takes on a double meaning. On the one hand, it symbolizes the furtive and guileful ways of the enemy. On the other hand, it’s as though the submarine also functions below the radar of official government and ideology; it is subversive against its own Evil Regime or exploited by it(like the underworld Nibelung in German mythology). We almost never see the crew in DAS BOOT as Nazis but as courageous & loyal Germans doing their duty and surviving day by day. Since submarine crews are often sent on near-suicide missions–and since the means of their death is beyond horrifying–, we naturally can’t help but feel some sympathy. Soviet airplanes during WWII were called ‘flying coffins’, and the submarine might as well have been called the ‘underwater coffins’. All manners of death are terrifying in war, but at least death above ground is to die in the world of men. When a submarine fails and sinks to the bottom, it’s like being buried alive. A pilot in a falling airplane still has the option of using the parachute. The claustrophobic crew trapped in a sinking submarine are like rats stuffed inside a can and tossed into a lake. Worse, the pressures of the deep may crush a submarine like a crayfish under a iron boot.
It turns out in THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER that the Soviet submarine is not only a clandestine enemy against the US but a renegade crew seeking to escape the Evil Empire.
In ENEMY BELOW, even after a long bitter battle between the US and the Germans, there is a sense of bond of honor between military men.
K-19 is different from most submarine films for it is a non-war movie(though unfolding at tehe peak of the Cold War). But, its sensibility is very much like that in ENEMY BELOW. Though the Soviets are presented as a committed enemy of the West, there is a recognition of the duty, honor, and sacrifice of their naval men. At times, our close identification with them makes us see them as something like American Russians or Russian Americans.
Especially because the characters speak English–with a little Slavic inflection–and the two main characters are played by Harrison Ford and much Americanized Liam Neeson, it’s easy to forget that we are not watching American soldiers. Indeed, we would hardly notice the difference if K-19 were a movie about Americans(or Germans for that matter). It’s as if soldiering or sailoring ultimately comes down to basic virtues such as unity, loyalty, toughness, skill, and dedication regardless of nation or ideology. When men are pushed to the limit, ideology or nation matters less than sticking-and-struggling-together.
Some members of the White Right might actually admire the idea of an all-white male crew patrolling the seas for the Motherland–as opposed t the US military which has been Negro-ized, feminized, and homosexualized. The US military is where white men must salute cocky black commanders, where white females routinely have mulatto kids with black soldiers, where gays agitate for open homosexuality, where many Hispanics join mainly as a career choice, and where the wars and engagements are handpicked by AIPAC. Some might call this progress, but at the rate it’s going, it spells doom for the West. Maybe, it would be more accurate to say the crew in K-19 are like what the US military used to be before the major changes took place beginning with Harry Truman who integrated the Armed Forces.
Anyway, there are political and cultural factors in K-19 which would be unthinkable or at least less thinkable in the US military, politics, or society-at-large. Though all forms of power are prone to abuse, secrecy, and corruption, such problems were bound to be more serious in totalitarian societies like the USSR. Of course, freedom can lead to abuses of power and corruption unthinkable in authoritarian or totalitarian societies. For example, the mafia did much better under Italian democracy than under Italian Fascism; indeed, it was Mussolini who’d come closest to wiping it out. Also, the filth of crooked lawyers and foul pop culture that inundate capitalist-democratic America was unthinkable in Nazi Germany or Maoist China. There was more petty corruption in South Vietnam than in North Vietnam. There were more brothels in West Germany than in East Germany. So, freedom is no guarantee for a healthy and decent society. However, freedom does allow journalists in the free media and the outraged public speak out against abuses of politicians and corporations. Recently, Toyota got caught up in a major scandal though the number of victims was under fifty, a drop in the bucket give that millions of Toyotas were sold in the US.
In the Soviet Union or Maoist China, on the other hand, thousands of people could die in an industrial accident, but it would go unreported in the government owned-and-controlled news. When 30 million died in China in the late 50s and early 60s as a result of Mao’s crazy Great Leap Forward, not a single newspaper or radio program in China reported it. Even today, most Chinese know little or nothing about it.
In the US, George W. Bush lost respect over Katrina where less than a 1000 died, most of them by no fault of Bush or the government. In China, even after pushing policies that killed 30 million in a few years, Mao came roaring back in the mid 60s to be worshiped as a god by millions of young people. All those people knew NOTHING of what happened in the late 50s because nothing had been reported in the news. It hadn’t been discussed at school either, and their parents dared not discuss it since the slightest whiff of dissent could get one imprisoned or killed. In Nazi Germany, millions of people could be deported and worked to death as slaves. Or they could be shot or gassed like the Jews were. But, none of this went reported in the news. On the outside, it seemed all was healthy, decent, and well in National Socialist Germany, but the actual reality was otherwise. The same kind of mindset prevailed over the USSR. As the government controlled all the media, schools, and whatever else, most people were told day and night that all was great, proud, noble, progressive, and fast-advancing the worker’s paradise. The reality of dangerous working conditions, shoddy goods, official lies and deceit, deteriorating conditions, and so on were all swept under the bear rug. There was even a good deal of self-deception among the top brass as real reality was too grim for anyone to face. (To be sure, the official liberal and neocon line in the US is no less full of BS, with its rosy prognosis that US will become a better and nobler nation due to miscegenation and massive immigration from the Third World. Even so and despite the tremendous might of the liberal media, there is a counter-media both big and small. And liberals must be credited with calling BS on the conservative lies and corruption. And there are some liberals who are capable of seeing and reporting abuses on their own side.)
The problems of the Soviet Union as a whole is reflected in the series of crises that erupt inside the Soviet submarine. K-19 is meant to be like a microcosm of the Soviet Union itself. From the beginning, there is the problem of shoddy workmanship and material. Soviet Union was known more for quantity than quality. Despite some excellent military hardware such as the T-34 tank, Katyusha rockets, AK-47, and MiG fighters, Soviets lagged behind the West when it came to quality and precision. Indeed, AK-47 symbolizes both the strength and weakness of the Soviet military as a whole. The weapon was hardy, all-purpose, easy to mass-manufacture, and quick to master. But, it wasn’t exactly high-tech.
At any rate, a glitch on an AK-47 isn’t exactly the end of the world, and the gun may still fire under most circumstances. It’s quite another matter with a nuclear submarine where if something goes wrong, it’s gonna tear another a**hole in the world. Most of us heard of the cruddiness of Soviet goods such as toilet tissue which was as rough as sandpaper–and for which one had to stand in line for hours to buy–and the television among which 1 out of 5 turned out to be faulty and literally blew up and caught fire. We may laugh at stories like that, but when the attitude, skill, and workmanship that went into making the Soviet TV went towards making something like a nuclear submarine or the nuclear reactor(in Chernobyl), it was no laughing matter. During Stalin’s time, workers had been more mindful if only because they could be accused of sabotage and sent to the gulag or shot in the back of the head. Once the Stalinist system faded and was replaced by the more forgiving and indulgent Khrushchev-ism and Brezhnev-ism, things were bound to get lazier and even more inefficient. If capitalism offers a profit incentive to those providing goods and services(and if shoddy companies are replaced by efficient ones), there weren’t naturally corrective mechanisms within communism(a top-down command system), in which one shirked one’s duties whenever possible as there was little incentive to work harder.
Since one was assured of the basic necessities of life as social ‘rights’ and couldn’t rise much above that, the natural thing was to work as little as possible.
From K-19, we get the sense that the Soviet Union had its share of great scientific minds. It also had leaders committed to the motherland. And, most Soviets may indeed have communist idealists to some degree. It also had many brave men. Also, the USSR didn’t suffer for lack of manpower or natural resources. So, what was missing? Part of the problem was communism itself though perhaps this wasn’t so apparent in the early 60s. After all, Stalin had industrialized the nation in a decade and then used its military might to destroy the seemingly invincible Nazi Germany. Though WWII was catastrophic for many Soviet citizens, it also led to victorious glory and all of Eastern Europe as the satellite of the USSR. With Third World ‘liberation’ movements raging around the world, it didn’t seem foolish to believe in the early 60s that Soviets were on the right side of history. Cuba had fallen to communism in 1959, and many cheered or feared that the same would happen to all of Latin-America, the ‘backyard’ of the United States. Also, it appeared that the Soviets got a head start in the space race, and many observers thought the East Wind was prevailing over the West.
But, the problems of communism were intractable and becoming more obvious by the day. Sure, Stalin had industrialized the country, but at what cost? Stalin turned the USSR into a superpower through use of mass slave labor, mass terror, and mind-numbing propaganda. How long could this go on? How long can any political system keep advancing or survive through extreme inhuman means? People were bound to burn out sooner or later. So, Khrushchev embarked on a communism with a human face, but it soon became apparent that communism and freedom were incompatible. Consider Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poland in the early 80s, and finally the fall of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain when Gorbachev earnestly tried to reform communism. A system that didn’t allow individual incentive could work through coercion. But, even coercion wasn’t enough as workers under communism worked as a faceless mass. It was difficult to tell who slacked off, who produced this or that shoddy good, and so on.
But, there were deeper cultural problems too. East Germans, even under communism, tended to be more efficient and industrious than their Russian counterparts. It goes without saying that some peoples, especially the Germans, Japanese, and traditional Anglos, took greater pride in workmanship, thoroughness, efficiency, and excellence. And it’s not just a matter of pride but of shame. A German or Japanese would feel shame to be thought of as lazy and sloppy. Pride in workmanship wasn’t just a matter of profit incentive or external pressure but an internal mechanism of self-worth. From a young age, German and Japanese kids were imbued with the notion that dedication to and competence at a certain task are essential virtues. This kind of mentality never really developed among the Russians who preferred to drink vodka, dance on tables, sing boorish songs, and wrestle with bears. Stalin whipped the Russians into shape, but the effect was external than internal. Russians worked hard under Stalin more out of fear of the whip than pride of the heart. Since communism was all about the collective, the Russian-as-individual never developed an individual pride in workmanship. A German blacksmith or a Japanese sword-smith took great pride in his own skills and ability. The Russian way was to just follow orders. Perhaps, this had something to do with the size of Russia. Being members of a vast country with great resources, Russians–especially at the top–never learned to focus their attention on anything. Consider the amount of waste and inefficiency that plagued the Soviet Union–and Russia even now. Russians could take this attitude since they figured there would always be more oil, more iron, more wood, more water, etc in vast Russia. (On the other hand, Anglo-Americans, also blessed with vast lands and resources, proved to be more efficient and conscientious, though it must be said plenty of white Americans at one time shot buffalos and cleared forests as if those things would forever be in abundance. Consider that the bisons, estimated to have been around 20 million in the 18th century, were reduced to a few dozens by the late 19th century.)
Also, every blessing is a curse. The rise of communist Russia must have seemed like a great blessing to all the True Believers within and without the USSR. After WWII, even more so. How could it be that an ideology that came to power only in 1917 came to defeat Nazi Germany, swallow up Eastern Europe, and then even take China in 1949? And, ten yrs later, Cuba went communist, and naturally rest of Latin America seemed ripe for revolution too. On the face of it, communism seemed to have gone from a rising star to the central sun in the galaxy. But with every great promise comes a great ambition, and the Soviet Union began to think in messianic and imperial terms. Though it was economically no match for the US, resurgent Western Europe, and Japan, it wanted to convince the world–and fool itself–that it represented the wave of the future. For good public relations, the Soviets even lavished generous aid to Cuba and North Korea and African countries. Soviets ensured that people in Eastern Europe would live better than people in Russia and other Soviet republics. Russians had to tighten their belts and pour aid and advantages to other countries to persuade the world that its way was the right way. And, if the USSR couldn’t match the West in terms of life style or consumer goods, it sought to compensate with military might, as if show its own people and the world that communist man was ready to defend and spread world revolution.
So, when Reagan increased military spending, thus making US the premier military power without question, Soviet Union had no more cards to play. But, we are getting ahead of ourselves.
K-19 takes place in the early 1960s when the future was uncertain for both sides. Even if the then-experts were well aware of communist countries’ woefully lagging living standards, there was the fear of communists being more dedicated, disciplined, and confident in contrast to Westerners who were growing decadent, easy-going, divisive, and degenerate. When a great military power like the US couldn’t prevail in Vietnam, people began to write off the ‘American empire’. Good or bad, it seemed as if the communists were true believers with the iron will to fight and die for that something. Meanwhile, Westerners and their Third Worlders allies seemed concerned mainly with material comfort, pleasure, or privilege. Psychology does matter in war. Military historians believe that France had sufficient military might in 1940 to fend off the Germans, but the French gave up out of lack of will. The Chinese Nationalists had more men and weapons than the communists during the Chinese Civil War, but the more determined and ruthless communists won. US gave far more military aid to the more populous South Vietnam, but it was no match for the determined North Vietnam. Ragtag communist guerillas in Cuba took over the whole country. In this political climate, it was understandable why many in the West feared communism and the Cold War. It was not so much the fear of communist material power but its psychological/spiritual power. (What anti-communists perhaps failed to notice was that communist spiritual power was only strong in cases where communism served the interests of nationalism. Ho Chi Minh was, after all, revered by many Vietnamese not mainly for his communism as for his patriotism. And, most people initially supported Castro as an anti-Yankee Cuban nationalist than for his stealth-Marxism.)
Be that as it may, K-19 gives us an inside look at the world of Soviet military power and communist camaraderie that at one time gave Americans fits. On the one hand, we do see much that was indeed formidable. K-19 is a mighty submarine seemingly built at breakneck speed. Soviet commanders have iron in their blood and seem ambitious to try out their latest weapon. The submarine’s power to withstand impossible pressures in the deep and then later its slicing through meter-thick layers of frozen ice like knife through butter are indeed astounding and breathtaking. And, the test launch of its missile is a blast. But, what we see among the crew are not zealous and mindless robots but mostly young men with girlfriends or wives back home. And for all their prior training, they seem humanly confused and vulnerable when crises emerge. And despite all the stuff we heard about collective Soviet man, personalities clash onboard.
But, most jarring of all is the contradiction at the core of Soviet communism. On the one hand, the ideology stresses collectivism, unity, cooperation, and consensus. Yet, with its great ambitions, there is ever greater pressure from within and without to achieve yet another glory to prove its worth to the Soviet people or to the rest of the world. So, even as K-19 is supposed to represent the collective greatness of the Soviet people, the ONLY way to get anything done is to give its commander near dictatorial powers. Harrison Ford’s character is indeed strange. As Captain Alexei Vostrikov, he is tough and dedicated, but also vain and reckless. Every one of his good qualities can lurch into extremes, but nothing would be possible without his extreme qualities.. Soviet Union was too inefficient, technologically crude, and organizationally deficient to produce top-notch wares for immediate deployment. Except in the area of quantity, it couldn’t deliver speedy results of terms of quality.
So, what is K-19 as a piece of machinery? It is a formidable submarine with top-notch advanced technology but with lots of defects which require time for detection and debugging. But, Soviet political ambition require, indeed demand, results right away. Also, the Soviet government was probably less likely to care about the lives of the crewmen since there was no independent media or non-governmental power to blow the whistle when something went awry. Also, the leaders of the Soviet Union probably thought in terms of WWII, Cold War, and sacrifice. A nation that had heroically sacrificed over 20 million lives in the Great Patriotic War was probably not going to lose sleep over a few dozen men in a submarine. This callousness toward lives has long been a fact in Russia and communist nations. For all the talk of workers’ rights, workers came to matter less as human beings since they weren’t regarded as individuals but as a faceless collective ideal working for the future. When an individual is killed, we feel a unique and special person has died. But, when a ‘worker’ or ‘soldier’ dies, we’re dealing with a category of man whose shoes or boots could be filled by someone else. To the extent that ‘the worker’ was seen as a soldier in a world revolution according to communism, the individual came to matter less.
Harrison Ford’s Alexei Vostrikov intially registers powerfully and contradictorily as a strong individual who disregards the individual lives of his men. His mind is so fixed on the mission’s accomplishment–taking the submarine to the polar region and firing a test rocker–, he acts as the ship’s diva. He scares the living daylights of his men but also wins their admiration upon the misson’s success. Vostrikov’s eagerness is mixed bag of complexes. We are told his father was a patriotic hero who was purged and sent to the gulag. A part of him strives for personal glory. Part of him seeks redemption of family’s name. Part of him feels anger at the whole system, and in a sense, his triumph could be seen as a personal victory over the system which he serves. There is something both of hardline commander and the rebel maverick about him. It’s a memorable performance because we are used to seeing Ford in charming boyish roles–Indiana Jones–or dull Boy Scout roles–Jack Ryan–, both unmistakably American. As Alexei Vostrikov, Ford is convincingly non-American even if Russian viewers may disagree. For once, Harrison Ford didn’t just do Harrison Ford. It could well be his best performance since BLADE RUNNER. If not of great depth, the turmoil and intensity are undeniable.
His relationship with Liam Neeson(Capt. Mikhail Polenin) form the dramatic core of the movie, one that is as unstable as the cracked core of the nuclear generator on the submarine. The conflict and tension between the two men aren’t as fundamental as meets the Western eye. Given the extreme and nerve-racking nature of the mission, they have a falling out, with Ford’s Vostrikov willing to bite the bullet and damn the torpedoes while Polenin urges caution and proper procedure. Both viewpoints are valid in their own way. Polenin is a capable and honorable captain who insists on everything going according to plan. He is also a man of certain understanding and tolerance, who maintains a humane atmosphere on the ship. Polenin identifies the main faults not with himself or his crewmen but within the larger system that can build a nuclear submarine but cannot supply the right kinds of fuses and screws. Indeed, the problem that nearly destroys the ship and the entire crew is a simple error. A badly welded part of the nuclear generator cracks and the temperature rises to crisis levels. This part of the movie is most suspenseful and harrowing and executed effectively. If the consequences weren’t so grave, it might even be funny. Just how is it that an elite crew in a massive nuclear submarine of a mighty empire are reduced to ferreting back and forth like amateur auto-mechanics to solder the crack on a nuclear generator? Kathryn Bigelow’s HURT LOCKER is a movie about military men who defuse bombs, so she obviously feels at home with this material.)
The strangest part of the movie is when Polenin and Vostrikov patch things up when least expected for reasons which may be a psychological riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
When the generator seems beyond repair and radiation spreads throughout the submarine, Polenin argues that the main priority of the captain is to save the lives of his men. If that means asking Americans–who are hovering nearby like both a vulture and angel–for help, so be it. Out of national pride, political fear, personal vanity, and whatever unfathomable reason, Vostrikov is unwilling to ‘surrender’ to the Americans. He is faced with a moral dilemma from which there is no easy solution. Yes, a captain should care about the lives of his crewmen, but haven’t they all pledged their lives to the glory of the Soviet Union? Isn’t it better to die with honor than hand over the prize and pride of the Soviet military technology over to the enemy? (There is irony here, for this formidable submarine which can smash through polar ice and shoot off missiles is equipped with machine parts that wouldn’t have passed the test in highschool auto shop.) On the other hand, men are flesh and blood, and shouldn’t ideas ultimately serve men than vice versa? The rift between Polenin and Vostrikov seems unbridgeable, and when a commissar and another officer conspire to have Vostrikov put under arrest for risking the lives of the crew, we expect Polenin to play Fletcher Christian to Vostrikov’s Captain Bligh(as in Mutiny on the Bounty). But, surprise surprise, something else happens. Polenin has Vostrikov released while ordering the arrest of the conspirators.
This dramatically crucial part of the film can be blasted as contradictory or hailed as dense irony, and I’m inclined to go with the latter, if only because the conspirators are not vilified for easy moral resolve or consumption on our part. There is no good or bad here but only a sense of rightness and wrongness depending on the codes and temperaments of the men aboard. Though the movie ultimately presents Vostrikov and Polenin as heroic in their own way, what is missing is any objective sense of heroism.
The crucial action surrounding the conspiracy and mutiny and its undoing by Polenin is open to any number of interpretation. We can surmise that the conspirators were acting on principle in their own way. Vostrikov endangered the men of the ship, so naturally it was necessary to put him under arrest and hand over the power to Polenin. The conspirators naturally thought Polenin, who had a falling out with Vostrikov, would be on their side.
But, Polenin saw things differently. Even if he agreed with the goals of the conspirators, he may have suspected their motive was personal fear than Soviet idealism. Or, it could have been a case of solidarity of military men against the ideological police–which had so many officers purged and killed during Stalin’s times. Also, despite or precisely because of the unfortunate bitterness between Vostrikov and Polenin, the attempted mutiny is an opportunity to rekindle the bond of trust and friendship. To the extent that Polenin dared not join the mutiny, Vostrikov owes him one. Good or bad, Polenin is the product of the Soviet system where loyalty is of paramount importance. Thus, his undying loyalty to Vostrikov is both moving and foolish–though as a movie in which Soviet values define the action, we feel more moved than offended. But, there may be other factors for Polenin’s ‘betrayal’ against the ‘traitors’. Earlier, when Vostrikov ordered the submarine to submerge to dangerously deep levels, Polenin had deserted his post and darted off to his room. Though filled with righteous rage, it’s possible that Polenin felt a degree of self-disgust for having acted unprofessionally.
Emotionally parallel to this is the young nuclear generator specialist who, initially out of fear, refused to work on the generator but is then so overcome with shame that he goes out of his way to give his all.
Or, maybe this was Polenin’s way of redeeming Vostrikov. By releasing Vostrikov, Polenin humanizes him through his own humanity. And indeed, Vostrikov becomes more ‘reasonable’ and decides to do what Polenin and the conspirators had wished all along–save the crew by asking for American help.
Or, if we want to be more cynical, perhaps Polenin perhaps realized that his and his family’s long-term future in the Soviet Union depends on upholding the hierarchy within the system. A mutiny on his resume may not look so good. Or, perhaps as a submarine captain, he felt natural affinity with another captain. What we sense is not so much that what Polenin is right or correct, but that HE feels that he is right or correct.
K-19 isn’t as structurally taut and powerful as DAS BOOT, but keep in the German film takes place during wartime. It is a movie about two sides blowing each other up. K-19 is not about two nations in a hot war. The conflict is not so much between US and USSR but within the stomach of the Soviet beast itself. It is also within the hearts of Soviet officers and crewmen who, in their own way, sought HUMAN answers to the problems they faced. Near great movie.