After seeing K-19: The Widowmaker, Holly McClure ( Crosswalk) wrote, "Before going to this movie, I realized I was a bit prejudiced about seeing a story that would require me to root for a communist Russian submarine and its crew. As a child, I remember the Cold War propaganda that viewed Russians as 'the enemy,' and even though that mindset in this country has clearly changed, I have to admit, I didn't think I would care about the story."

But McClure was impressed with the film and stirred by its suspenseful story. Should we be concerned if we find ourselves cheering for nuke-bearing Communists? The soldiers on board the K-19 submarine—the subject of director Kathryn Bigelow's new summer action/suspense film—are clearly committed Soviets who live in fear and hatred of America. We even see them watching anti-American propaganda films. Why then are audiences, even American moviegoers, rooting for them?

It's not the first time this has happened. The predicament of German sailors in Das Boot (still the greatest submarine film yet made) makes audiences hold their breath as the sub comes under attack. Perhaps our distance from World War II allows us to think more sympathetically of those who opposed us.

But there is more to it than that. War films that take us outside the usual good-guy/bad-guy dynamic can cultivate in us an ability to sympathize with our enemies. The metal confines of a sub's fragile and claustrophobia-inducing space remind us of how much we have in common with those of different political and religious convictions. Such sub-surface limitations reveal fears familiar to us, and the intensity of the drama inspires virtuous heroics that cannot help but move us. Our feelings about their political orientation become secondary to our understanding of the risks they take. J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) says, "For some folks, rooting for the Soviets in 1961 might seem odd, but those concerns are soon outweighed by the difficult situation the men find themselves in." He concludes, "Widowmaker is a tense, taut submarine thriller."

We should definitely keep clear in our minds the flaws in the philosophies and tactics of our enemies. But surely we can find room in our hearts for sympathy. Christ's exhortation goes even further than "sympathy." He wants us to love our enemies. It might be a good exercise for our hearts to imagine this sub being full of men who are currently opposing us—Osama bin Laden's trained terrorists, for example. Might we find the courage to love and pray for them in the midst of their error? (My full review of the film is at Looking Closer.)

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K-19: The Widowmaker is based on history. In 1961, the Russian military sent out an unprepared, top-secret nuclear sub to fire a test missile, thus showing the world that Russia was a force to be reckoned with. In this fictional account of the crew's trials, the leader of K-19's crew, Captain Polenin (Liam Neeson) is demoted to executive officer when his superiors decide he is too lenient with his crew. Captain Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), a gruff, tough commander, takes charge, driving the boat to the edge of its capabilities and the crew to the edge of its wits. Tempers flare between Polenin and Vostrikov while the rookie crew members quietly assure their former captain that he still has their loyalty. All they want to do is conduct their test and go home. But when the nuclear core of one of the boat's reactors starts overheating, they may inadvertently start World War III.

Many critics have lined up to ridicule K-19's lack of convincing Russian accents. (Anthony Lane of The New Yorker says Ford's attempt to sound Soviet is the film's most striking "special effect.") I too found the vague, inconsistent voices a problem, until I was reminded that the Soviet military was made up of soldiers from around the globe, including men from Great Britain, North America, and Scandinavia. Thus, the muddled accents are probably accurate.

Others complain that this film doesn't measure up to the action and suspense we've seen in past submarine-bound war films like Crimson Tide and U-571. But K-19 might not even qualify as a "war movie." It's about the possible consequences of a government that has become recklessly arrogant. It is also about putting pride before compassion, as Vostrikov pushes his men to unreasonable extremes. In the end, the film is a moving portrait of courage and selflessness under the shadow of death. However historically accurate Bigelow's nerve-jangling film is, it certainly haunts us with what might have been.

Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) says, "The submarine feels appropriately claustrophobic; the mission resonates with a sense of doom; and opportunities for courage and cowardice play as gravely as they surely were. [The movie] runs a little too long, eschews subtext at times, and suffers a bit from dim characterizations. But like the crew that manned the ship in 1961, it manages not to crack under pressure."

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) also offers a mixed response: "It's hard to be unmoved by what the men of the K-19 go through, but it's equally hard to overlook the glaring flaws in the human drama. As an exercise in logistics and adversity, K-19 is compelling, but as a story about human decisions and moral issues, it's full of holes and clichés."

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Likewise, Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says that "something is missing. The film simply fails to subject its audience to the same nerve-wracking emotional pressure that its characters face."

But Elliott adds that Ford and Neeson "give studied, controlled performances." I have to agree—I was thrilled to see the return of Harrison Ford the compelling actor. Ford has seemed miscast, disappointing, and even dull in all of his films since The Fugitive. Here, he makes the prospect of this cantankerous captain losing his temper almost as frightening as the failure of the sub's volatile reactor. "Harrison Ford is quite good riding a fine line between villainy and good," concludes Marie Asner (The Phantom Tollbooth).

Steven Isaac (Focus on the Family) argues that the dominance of Hollywood fiction over historical fact disrupts the experience. "You just can't bring yourself to trust what your eyes are beholding." He points out that retired Russian submariners are protesting the film's inaccuracies. A group spokesman says, "This film isn't about Russians, but about how Americans want to see Russians."

John Evans (Preview) calls it "an inspiring story of courage and heroism." But he is most impressed by "the complete lack of foul language. It proves that foul language is not necessary for a film to be highly realistic."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' critic reports that the film is "not gripping. Ford is stiff in the role, grimly enunciating with a passable Russian accent, but never looking convincing or comfortable in his portrayal of the stoic sub commander." And Ted Baehr (Movieguide) claims, "The accents are atrocious" and "There are long sections of boredom in this overlong movie." He goes even farther, claiming the film is pro-Communist.

Mainstream critics were divided on the same issue. John Powers (L.A. Weekly) says, "K-19 is so unnervingly square that it seems eerily like Party-sanctioned Soviet filmmaking: Its Motherland-loving sailors, myth-making shots of K-19, and displays of heroism are worthy of the Young Lenin Pioneers' Handbook."

Not everyone agrees. "It would be a grave mistake to view K-19 as a pro-Soviet film," says Andrew O'Hehir ( "As an audience we must acknowledge the brave self-sacrifice of men who believed they were serving the Communist Party and the Soviet state, even though that party and that state had sent them out into the ocean on a poorly insulated pile of smoldering plutonium."

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O'Hehir also points out how the film transcends the politics of the situation to highlight the bravery of a few men who risked their lives to prevent an apocalypse that would destroy far more than the motherland. "Of course the Hollywood party line is that K-19 is nothing more than a good story, but Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break,Strange Days) is a cannier and trickier filmmaker than that. Not only does she not seek black-and-white moral equations, she actively tries to undermine them. Even in this movie's few lighter moments … it remains a fable about the perils of a Manichaean worldview, the danger that dividing the world into implacable camps of friends and foes leads to the annihilation of both. It's just as valuable a lesson as it was 40 years ago—and just as devilishly difficult to apply to reality."


Hot from the Oven

In above-sea-level storytelling, Stuart Little 2challenged Tom Hanks's new gangster film for the box-office crown. This vivid, lively sequel bears little resemblance to the hero of E.B. White's children's stories anymore, but his latest antics have critics cheering.

Listen to Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films): "See, now, this is how to make a sequel. [Stuart Little 2 is] a thoroughly entertaining family film that's smarter, funnier, more heartfelt, and more exciting than the amiable 1999 original. The movie looks terrific, too. As with the first film, director Rob Minkoff makes excellent use of his New York setting, and the special effects are so well-done that at times you actually forget you're watching special effects. Breezy pop songs enhance the bouncy mood, and at 72 minutes Stuart Little 2 never wears out its welcome. If only all sequels were this good."

Michael Elliott says, "This relatively short film … is just long enough to totally enthrall both old and young without … becoming tedious or repetitive." He highlights "messages that will resound in the heart of any family member … the most obvious being the ultimate responsibility of parents to prepare to send their children out into the world."

Ted Baehr (Movieguide) calls it "better written than the original … one of the best written movies of the year. What a joy it is to watch a movie which is well-written! Especially when it's full of loving family values. It is the exact opposite of the hapless Men in Black 2, where the timing seemed to be off for almost every joke. [It's] a must-see movie for families. It is as good as a family movie gets."

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John Evans (Preview) gives it a careful nod: "Even with some slightly off color humor and moderately intense action, Stuart Little 2 appears appropriate for ages 6 years and older." And the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' critic approves, "although the story's freshness and originality suffer a bit."

Mainstream critics show that they're not opposed to films that underline family values as long as the films are well-made, original, and entertaining. Mary Ann Johanson (Flick Filosopher) says the movie "pulls off the rare feat of surpassing its excellent predecessor in all aspects. Honor and honesty, friendship and family take center stage, but this amiable tale never lectures." Roger Ebert, who has confessed a dislike for films in which mice interact with humans and somehow avoid being crushed, says, "It has some of the same charm, if not the same genius, as the movies about Babe the pig. Stuart is stalwart and heroic—the Braveheart of mice."


Michael Elliott this week points out the Bible's one mention of spiders: "There be four things which are little upon the earth, but they are exceeding wise," says Proverbs 30:24. Spiders may be wise, and their cleverness surely has something to do with why many people fear them, but wisdom is not a word that springs to mind for critics of Eight Legged Freaks.

Most critics are panning it as derivative, full of gratuitous violence and unsuccessful humor, and a waste of time. But a few are standing up for Ellory Elkayem's film, saying that it succeeds in its modest goal—to spoof the beloved and ridiculous B-movies of the '50s. There's not much to it beyond the simple set up: Toxic waste has spilled near a rural mining town, transforming and unleashing an army of gargantuan arachnids into the defenseless neighborhoods of screaming empty-headed townsfolk. If some of them don't develop common sense soon, the planet might soon be caught in a worldwide web.

What would Spider-Man do?

Elliott compares the movie to "such atomic powered gems as Them and Attack of the Crab Monsters. Less a spoof than a fond homage, Eight Legged Freaks invites us to return to the simple days of yesteryear when we didn't let the omission of logic or good acting stand in our way of enjoying the cheesy effects and stupid premise of a sci-fi fantasy."

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Taking a different view, Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) winces at the sensationalized violence. "While it could be argued that the film's sheer ludicrousness begs audiences not to take any of it seriously, some viewers may be further desensitized to real pain and suffering." Likewise, Paul Bicking (Preview) says, "Although often done in a humorous manner, the frequent, gross violence along with several crude sexual comments and vulgar language gives Eight Legged Freaks a bad spin."

The USCCB's critic calls it "overacted and underwhelming. If spiders exploding with goppy green goo isn't your cup of tea, you too may hope that Eight Legged Freaks doesn't have—as they say in the business to indicate longevity—'legs.'"


Still cooking

Christian media critics continued to turn in reviews of summer blockbusters this week.

For starters, J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) declares, "Men in Black II represents the ultimate triumph of marketing over substance. The movie itself is a slight affair with none of the charm or creativity of the original." Parks is particularly bothered by the role of women in the sequel. "Rosario Dawson functions merely as the Love Interest. It's a standard female role in a summer blockbuster, but its ubiquity can't eliminate the ugly sexism that oozes from its conventions. There's no attempt to develop her character. Rather, she's just supposed to get all dewy-eyed whenever Will Smith shows up. At least she doesn't have to parade around in lingerie like Lara Flynn Boyle. Baby, you've come a long way."

Elsewhere, Mike Parnell (Ethics Daily) calls director Sam Mendes's Road to Perdition "the best film so far this year." He also explores the religious elements of the film. But Ryan Izay (Christian Spotlight) offers a caution: "Although this may possibly be the best film in years, don't rush out to see it unless you are sure that you can handle it. Perditionis filled with violence and men who know that they are on their way to hell."

The fire-breathing four-legged freaks of Reign of Fire, heavily ridiculed by critics in the past couple of weeks, have found a half-hearted defender in Peter T. Chattaway (Vancouver Courier). "It falls back on hokey storytelling gimmicks," he agrees, "but it's an entertaining ride while it lasts. For those who have a taste for this sort of thing, the brawny, testosterone-pumped battle of wills between [Christian] Bale and [Matthew] McConaughey is just one more reason Reign of Fire ranks as one of the summer's true guilty pleasures." (I agree with Chattaway's assessment. The film could have been much better, but I won't soon forget the over-the-top antics of its enthusiastic cast.)

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Most religious-media critics avoided dealing with the latest installment in the unfortunately enduring franchise of Halloween movies—Halloween: Resurrection. The USCCB's critic turned in a review that sums up why: "Halloween: Resurrection is only scary in how dim-witted its creators are in thinking that another stale installment that was slapped together in the most haphazard of ways could possibly pass horror-film muster."

Next week: Mike Myers returns as Austin Powers and several other characters as well. Are you laughing? Plus: Disney turns loose The Country Bears.