The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Russia shrugs off Uncle Sam’s K-19
- Laurels for Harrison Ford

Survivors from Russia’s first nuclear submarine disaster could not hide ironic smiles when they watched a Hollywood rendition of their deadly fight against a reactor spinning out of control.

But as the final credits rolled on the screen, grey-haired uniformed veterans rose to applaud the fantasy-filled story of human courage subduing ungovernable machine at the premiere in Russia of the US blockbuster K-19: The Widowmaker.

“Only two things in the film are true: the bottle of champagne did not break when the submarine was launched and yes, there was an accident with the reactor,” the craft’s navigator, Valentin Shabanov, 62, said. “The rest are tales from Uncle Sam.” The film, starring Harrison Ford as the ruthless captain, was shown at the Venice Film Festival last month but has only now reached Russia, where it is to be screened nationwide.

It tells the story of the Soviet Union’s first nuclear submarine developing a major malfunction on a mission to prove Moscow’s technical prowess to Washington at the height of the Cold War.

K-19 is likely to touch a raw nerve with a nation still suffering from the trauma of the loss of 118 crew in the Kursk submarine disaster in August 2000.

Back in 1961, eight sailors died from radiation exposure as the K-19 crew struggled to pump seawater into the overheated reactor on the verge of explosion through a makeshift pipeline.

Although the plot is based on real-life events, producers added psychological drama to K-19 storyline by clashing the hard-nosed captain Ford against his more compassionate second-in-command in a stand-off culminating in a riot.

That move won over few hearts among sailors proud of their unquestioning loyalty to the commander. “For the crew to disobey the captain. It is unthinkable,” said the craft’s powerline supervisor Boris Kuzmin. “As for handcuffs, in 1961 even police did not have them. Forget about the submarine.”

The sailors said they had vetoed the first script of the film, which contained such scenes as a Russian officer sitting on top of the reactor and drinking vodka.

Director Kathryn Bigelow, speaking at a news conference after the film’s gala premiere in St Petersburg’s magnificent Mariinsky Theatre, said the team added imaginary conflict to the story for the benefit of the viewer.

Despite the reservations, K-19 veterans were unanimous in giving high marks to the film which for the first time in Hollywood history portrayed Soviet servicemen as heroes. “Harrison Ford played really well. At one moment it even seemed to me he looked like our captain,” said Shabanov.“The same austere features, only our captain was not that tall.”

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