Since this cold war submarine saga gets the job done without rising to the high-water mark of, say, Das Boot, Kathryn Bigelow’s K-19: The Widowmaker may go down as the flick that brought together two honchos from both Star Wars trilogies. I’m talking Harrison (Han Solo) Ford and Liam (Qui Gon Jinn) Neeson, cast here as Soviet submarine captains who don’t see eye to eye, and it’s not just because Neeson is way taller. I won’t bitch about how Neeson’s Irish lilt and Ford’s American inflections bleed through their erratic Russian accents because it adds fun to a film that is mostly serious business.
Ford scowls commandingly as Alexi Vostrikovi, the captain who leads the nuclear-missile sub K-19 on its maiden voyage. He’s a hard-ass, as opposed to Neeson’s humane Mikhail Polenin, who is demoted to second officer for saying K-19 is not ready for its test-drive. It’s not. The two lock horns in the time-tested manner of sea epics from Run Silent, Run Deep to Crimson Tide.
The opening credits advise us that K-19 is “inspired by a true story.” And truth, that old nag, does occasionally intrude on the go-go action that Christopher Kyle loads into his screenplay. But the true part about the K-19 really is something. On June 18th, 1961, the K-19 left port with orders to test a nuclear missile in the Arctic and then head off to patrol the American coastline between Washington, D.C. and New York. No one expected a leak to spring in the sub’s nuclear reactor. A resulting meltdown could have turned K-19 into a 400-foot, 4,000-ton coffin, not to mention spark World War III. That didn’t happen, but twenty K-19 crew members died from radiation exposure — shown in all its skin-melting agony in the film — and the issue about whether the captain should seek U.S. help ignited a near mutiny. These events were hushed up for three decades. K-19: The Widowmaker fills in the blanks, offering a tribute to the Russian crew that overrides the film’s hokier embellishments. An epilogue, with a reunion of surviving crew members, is too Saving Private Ryan cornball to countenance, but it is rare and stirring to see a Hollywood epic told from a Russian perspective. A salute is in order for Bigelow, a director who knows how to navigate macho terrain (Near Dark, Point Break) without losing her human compass. She achieves real majesty with scenes of the sub cracking through the Arctic ice to emerge in a vast nowhere — a stark contrast to the claustrophobia below. Being a jumbo mainstream package, K-19 doesn’t let its director stray too long from the star-driven Sturm und Drang. But in the grace notes of fragility — be it an inexperienced reactor officer, well played by Peter Sarsgaard, traumatized by the effects of radiation or the crew staging an impromptu game of soccer on the ice — Bigelow invests this mean machine of a movie with a beating heart.