Harrison Ford must have scowled with delight when he read the script for K-19: The Widowmaker. Ford, who hasn't smiled in a movie since the Carter administration, is playing the captain of a brand-new Russian nuclear submarine that's having trouble finding its sea legs, and the role requires him to first frown, then sneer, then howl with rage. Although there's absolutely no physical evidence of it on the screen, I'm going to assume that, during the filming, Ford was as happy as a pig in mud.
"Inspired by actual events" (isn't everything?), K-19 sounds like a particularly well-fortified breakfast cereal, but in fact it's a "true" story about the time, back during the Cold War, when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. came close to blowing up the world. The U.S. was way ahead in nuclear subs, which forced the Soviets to launch one of their own before it had a chance to batten down all the hatches. After firing its test missile, K-19 developed a leak in its nuclear reactor. Meltdown was possibly moments away.
And meltdown would have meant a thermonuclear explosion that, because it would have vaporized a nearby American destroyer, might have led both sides to unleash their nuclear arsenals. This is the kind of doomsday scenario that movies have been engaging in since at least 1964's Fail-Safe. But K-19 looks at the nuclear standoff from a unique perspective ' unique for a Hollywood movie, anyway. This time, we see everything through the eyes of the Soviets.
Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev ' they must be turning in their graves. For not only does K-19 come to bury the Russian sailors who exposed themselves to lethal doses of radiation so the rest of us might live, it comes to praise them. Which is something the Motherland never got around to doing. To keep the U.S. from finding out exactly what happened, K-19's crew was sworn to secrecy. Only with the breakup of the Soviet Union have these soldiers been given their due...by their former enemies.
And so we're placed in the unusual position of rooting for the Soviet sailors to 1) save their lives, 2) save their sub and 3) save the world. That's relatively easy to do given that K-19's captain and chief lieutenant are played by Ford and Liam Neeson, each of them sporting just enough of a Russian accent to get us to believe in him without succumbing to giggles. Despite its actual-events inspiration, K-19 quickly turns into one of those chain-of-command movies Ã la Mutiny on the Bounty.
Ford's the hard-liner, putting the newly born sub through drills that test its limits by surpassing them. Neeson's the softie, a father figure for the crew. And their relationship is so close to the one between Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster in 1958's Run Silent, Run Deep that you have to wonder whether watching that movie was one of the "events" that inspired the scriptwriters. Alas, there are only so many plots when it comes to submarine movies, and this one has taken on some water over the years.
Even so, it's hard to keep a good submarine ' or a good submarine movie ' down. And although K-19 doesn't qualify as a good submarine, K-19 qualifies as a good submarine movie, thanks to some brilliant filmmaking by director Kathryn Bigelow. As in Strange Days, Bigelow doesn't seem to care about the story very much, but she sure as hell cares about how the story gets told. K-19 is beautifully staged, beautifully shot and beautifully edited (by the legendary Walter Murch) ' so much so that I almost didn't mind that the whole first hour was taken up with drills.
Dramatically, the movie coasts along until that leak occurs, when it suddenly becomes gripping. "Moscow, we have a problem," I expected someone to say as the reactor crew tried to figure out how to weld the world back together. There's a little bit more at stake here than there was in Apollo 13, but the situation's the same: men trapped in a tin can that could get very hot. Bigelow allows too much speechifying in the end, but at least someone has finally said a few words for these fallen comrades.