MOVIE REVIEW: K19: The Widowmaker

Subject: MOVIE REVIEW: K19: The Widowmaker
From: "Matthew Nankin" <mgnankin -at- hotmail -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 15 Aug 2002 20:21:55 +0000

MOVIE REVIEW: K19: The Widowmaker by Matthew Nankin

Inspired by a true story that was kept secret until the fall of communism, K19: The Widowmaker is the tale of an ill-prepared Russian nuclear missile submarine that embarks on its maiden voyage with near-disastrous consequences. However, on a much deeper level, it is a story of the misuse of documentation that all technical communicators can appreciate.

Immediately the audience is made aware of the improper use of technical documentation. On a first voyage, nobody onboard looks at any of the manuals. We are not even aware that they exist. When one of the crewmembers first sees that an important instrument is not working properly, he taps it with his finger instead of referring to official written procedures. This failure to consult the documentation early on will have fatal consequences for some members of the crew.

In the movie?s pivotal scene, tensions mount as radiation levels rise throughout the submarine. Finally, Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) and Executive Officer Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson) turn to the documentation for answers. The emergency procedures manual is read aloud to the crew, but does not contain information on fixing a malfunctioning nuclear reactor. In disgust, the loose pages of the guide are thrown aside and never referred to again!

Although the movie goes on to show standard Hollywood-type action and dramatic scenes, larger questions regarding the manual are never answered. For example, why didn?t the Russian sailors refer to the index or table of contents? Was there another manual that might have had the emergency information that they needed? Why was time wasted contacting the Kremlin when a better solution might have been speaking to a technical support specialist? Since this was the very first Russian nuclear submarine, there might have been updated pages or an addendum. The crew should have, at a minimum, verified they had the latest version of the document available prior to setting out.

Sadly, these important questions about the document remain unanswered. As the Russian nuclear submarine is fixed at the expense of crewmembers exposed to lethal radiation, we are all left to wonder what might have occurred had the documentation been more complete or if the sailors had taken the time to look through the manual before they needed it. As the movie concludes with sailors honoring their fallen comrades in a Moscow cemetery, we can only hope that people who view this epic will take away an important lesson about the disastrous consequences that can result from documentation that is both incomplete and misused.

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