With a stalwart sense of mission mirroring that of its characters, “K-19: The Widowmaker” obediently follows the verities of the submarine movie and its true story origins but without the imagination needed to refresh the genre. Those who remember “Das Boot,” “The Bedford Incident” and “Run Silent, Run Deep” will appreciate pic’s specific salutes to sub classics, as well as its avoidance of contempo actioner tricks. But outline of the actual 1961 incident — in which Soviet K-19 nuclear-powered sub nearly experienced total meltdown during the Cold War — tends to bog down rather than inspire the drama. Because it marks Harrison Ford’s return to his best star fit as a rough man of action, pic should open strongly, but sustainability will be challenged by unfortunate Yank disinterest in Cold War history from the Soviet perspective.
Such apathy is ironic: Embarrassed Communist party officials and military brass swore survivors of the second of K-19’s several mishaps (boat was later darkly dubbed “Hiroshima” by mates) to secrecy about the Atlantic episode, which the now-public record and pic clearly blames on incompetent and rushed Soviet ship production and maintenance as well as undue political pressure to keep up with the U.S.
Some Russian filmmakers doubtless feel that this was their story to tell, but like “Paths of Glory” and its shaming of French brass in WWI, American filmmaking might has invaded the territory first. Much more comfortably than Par’s recent action-drama, “The Sum of All Fears,” which uneasily tried to make itself into a Cold War thriller, “K-19” really is that, although the efforts to be fully Russian in mood, attitude and (especially) language sometimes show considerable strain.
The link to “Sum” doesn’t only involve Ford (the former Jack Ryan) and Yank-Russo conflict, but also the opening sequence, which uncomfortably repeats “Sum’s” gambit of creating the illusion of a thermonuclear crisis, only to then reveal that it was only an exercise. Though echo may be accidental, it hardly helps pic get off to a roaring start.
Running afoul of protocol and his new boat’s shoddy mechanics, the K-19’s skipper, Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), is upstaged by superiors, who place Capt. Alexei Vostrikov (Ford) in command. Vostrikov’s own skepticism about shipping the untested sub out to the maritime front lines is shot down by top chief Marshal Zelentstov (Joss Ackland).
Though Christopher Kyle’s script (based on Louis Nowra’s story) deletes mention of K-19’s first nuke reactor problems, it replaces it with doses of Russian mysticism in the form of bad omens: The man in charge of the reactor is found drunk; an untested rookie named Vadim (Peter Sarsgaard) replaces him; the christening bottle of champagne fails to crack on the hull; and the boat’s doctor is killed in a freak accident. Unfortunately, Kyle’s script also insists on reviewing this litany through frequently literal-minded dialogue.
Neeson fights off the dialogue’s anchoring effect, though, with a performance that evolves by stages. Initially both loyal to his equally loyal men and slightly rebellious to authority, his Polenin adapts to an obedient secondary role under Vostrikov, until he gradually senses that the captain is pushing his men and the boat too hard with actions that include a near-fatal move in the polar ice to test-fire a nuke missile (whose destination remains oddly unexplained).
Like the best moments between Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster in “Run Silent,” the clash between Neeson and Ford is weighted equally, so that each man has his case to argue — even though Ford’s odd twists in his Russian-accented English during his angriest exchanges become a bit of a distraction from an otherwise solid portrayal.
Vostrikov’s successful missile test wins both the loyalty of the crew and the faith of the Kremlin, which quickly assigns K-19 Atlantic missile control, sending it on a course to directly face the U.S. coast between Washington, D.C. , and Gotham.
Centerpiece of action immediately bursts forth when a leak in the reactor sets off overheating, risking a meltdown. Since the leak is in a sealed area, Vostrikov must assign pairs of men to go inside and manually weld the leak, even though their entry will release a potentially uncontrollable radioactive spread through the sub. Intensity of the situation peaks as the contamination reaches full effect, scarring and sickening crew with a rapidity that shocks even the stone-faced Vostrikov, and unhinges Vadim, until he redeems himself with desperate heroics.
Though director-producer Kathryn Bigelow might be expected to bring to the project her heightened sense of technology’s effect on people, what surprises is how plain and traditional she is with the action and storytelling. Her occasionally roving camera deliberately recalls some of the spatial excitement of “Das Boot” (also recalled in the presence of political “officers” on board, who make nothing but mischief), but pic is otherwise true to the sub movie faith, down to the dusty cliches — sailors pining for their beloved, helicopter shots of the skipper at the helm in private reflection, mutinies and mutinies reversed.
Climax of nuke incident, though roughly accurate factually, is rather dull, lacking the suspenseful build of a “Hunt for Red October,” while aftermath in 1989 as the Berlin Wall falls and surviving crew reunites contains a well-considered wintry, end-of-era feeling, as well as a preview of what a senior citizen Ford may look like.
Physical filmmaking shares the lead with Ford and Neeson, who are both exceptionally up for the mission. Jeff Cronenweth’s lensing and production design by Karl Juliusson and Michael Novotny stress a closed-in world of rust, rot and nausea-producing greens, and Walter Murch’s editing maintains a full-speed approach without ever being carried away with cutting for its own sake. Visual fx are minimal and highly convincing, while the sound (care of vet Murch associates) becomes a character unto itself, when not drowned out by Klaus Badelt’s overdone score. Combined opening and closing credits total nearly 10 minutes.