It’s been eight years since Harrison Ford last played Jack Ryan, but the spirit of Tom Clancy haunts him still. His most successful role since then was that of the kick-ass plane-defending president in Air Force One. In his latest film, K-19: The Widowmaker — which marks a return to form after the disappointments of What Lies Beneath, Random Hearts and Six Days Seven Nights — he plays a Russian submarine commander, who takes the Soviet navy’s newest flagship on its maiden voyage, but is then suspected by his superiors of wanting to defect, and of wanting to take the ship with him. The film even features The Hunt for Red October’s Joss Ackland in yet another bit part as a Russian official.
But K-19 isn’t the rousing adventure yarn that such a description might lead you to expect. The film is based, or so its makers say, on historical events that almost pushed the world into a nuclear conflict just over 40 years ago, and it’s too conscious of its responsibility to history to fall back on cheap heroics. (One of the film’s co-producers is the National Geographic Society, if that tells you anything.) The film is a cross between Das Boot, albeit without combat scenes, and Thirteen Days, which also focused on a historical near-miss. Where that film took us behind the scenes of a well-known historical crisis, however, K-19 is about an incident that was kept secret until the Iron Curtain fell, decades later, and the film has to sell us on the significance of its story.
The bulk of the film deals with a reactor leak on the titular sub, which is one of the first nuclear-powered Soviet vessels. If the leak is not fixed in time, it could lead to nuclear meltdown and the detonation of the sub’s missiles, and since the ailing submarine has been shadowed by an American destroyer ever since it came to the surface, an explosion would destroy both vessels and could be construed as an act of war. This, in turn, might provoke a full-scale nuclear war, especially if Kennedy and Kruschev have itchy trigger fingers — but then again, it might not, and our uncertainty on this point leads us to wonder how much of the script, written by Christopher Kyle from a story by Louis Nowra, is actual history and how much consists of dramatic license.
The real suspense in this film ultimately comes not from the world outside the submarine, but from the world inside, and the clash of personalities therein. Ford is in serious-actor mode as Captain Alexi Vostrikov, a stern officer who believes in pushing his men to the edge, and who’s trying to live down the shame of having a father who was sent to the gulags. His style of command stands in sharp contrast to that of the previous captain, Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), who bonded with his crew and was reduced to executive officer at the last moment because he protested the Communist Party’s decision to rush the construction of the sub and launch it without proper supplies.
Ford may be the film’s star, but Neeson is taller, and he towers over Ford physically just as Polenin towers over Vostrikov, morally, in the eyes of the crew. (The less said about their phony, noncommittal Russian accents, the better.) The tension between them threatens to spill over into something more serious as Vostrikov runs the ship through a series of hazardous drills — diving to crush depth, rising fast through the Arctic ice shelf — and things get worse when the reactor springs its leak and the two captains are forced to choose between the ship and the crew, between self-preservation and duty to the motherland. The film toys with a Crimson Tide-style mutiny subplot, but without much conviction; director Kathryn Bigelow is more interested in how the crew steel their nerves and find the courage to put their lives at risk for each other. (The Salton Sea’s Peter Sarsgaard is especially good as the terrified reactor chief.)
In this, Bigelow is greatly assisted by the talents of Fight Club cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and veteran editor Walter Murch. She also gets a moving score out of Klaus Badelt. The film is longer than it needs to be, thanks to a gratuitous epilogue, and it plays into that Black Hawk Down mentality of disconnecting military valour from the politics that are served by that valour. At its best, though, K-19 is a suspenseful film that sheds light on a little-known part of our recent history.
— A version of this review was first published in The Vancouver Courier.