Boston Broadside
November/December 2002
Vol. 60,  No. 2
 Newsletter of the Boston Chapter of the Society for Technical Communication


Copyright © STC Boston 2002

Movie Review

K19: The Widowmaker

By Matthew Nankin

Inspired by a true story kept secret until the fall of Communism, K-19: 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, a story that all technical communicators can appreciate.

From the start, the audience is primed to look for the improper use of technical documentation. On the crew's maiden voyage, nobody onboard consults any of the manuals. The audience is not even aware that they exist. When one of the crewmembers sees that an important instrument is not working properly, he taps it with his finger instead of referring to official written procedures. This is a harbinger of things to come.

  The Crew of the K19 comes to grips with the inadequate manual.
  The Crew of the K19 comes to grips with the inadequate manual.

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 relevant emergency information? Why was time wasted contacting the Kremlin when a better solution might have been speaking to a technical support specialist? Because 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 that they had the latest version of the document available prior to setting out on their voyage. Sadly, these important questions about the document remain unanswered.

As the Russian nuclear submarine is fixed at the expense of crewmembers' exposure to lethal radiation, technical communicators are left to wonder what might have occurred if the documentation had been more user-friendly, or if the sailors had taken the time to look through the manual before they needed it. In the movie's final scene, 28 years have passed and the surviving crew reunites at a Moscow cemetery. In addition to mourning their fallen comrades, the sailors may also be reflecting on an important lesson taught to them about the disastrous consequences that result from the improper use of technical documentation.

Matthew Nankin is a senior member of the STC and a regular moviegoer. You can reach him at .

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