“For 28 years, this story could not be told.” So asserts an opening title in Kathryn Bigelow’s K-19: The Widowmaker, immediately establishing a sense of gravity, if not exactly urgency. “Inspired by actual events” (and a 1996 National Geographic documentary about those events), the film is set in 1961, when the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were locked in a contest of mutually assured destruction. It focuses on men in a submarine, in this case Soviets on board the nuclear missile-carrying K-19. While the ship is out on exercises, things go terribly wrong — the nuclear reactor develops a leak — and the crew must respond to indescribable peril.
K-19 is the Soviet Navy’s flagship, but as the film begins, it fails a drill while still docked. This upsets the grumpy Party types — including Marshal Zelenstov (Joss Ackland, with very little to do here except look grumpier than everyone else) — who replace the beloved, drinks-with-his-men Captain Polenin (Liam Neeson) with a much tougher guy. Captain Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) is a familiar movie type, military lifer dedicated to duty; though he doesn’t keep a little dog or a palm tree, roll dice on his knuckles, it’s clear within minutes that even this bland fellow is a stern taskmaster. “We will not fail!” he asserts, apparently by way of inspiring his men to follow him. Just before the sub is scheduled to depart for a sea trial, the ship’s doctor is hit by a truck and killed. Polenin looks sad; Vostrikov looks down at the bloody body, then barks, “Back to work!” Plainly, a driven man.
At this point, someone makes the helpful observation that the sub is nicknamed “the widowmaker” because ten men have been killed in a series of accidents, before the thing has even left port. Plainly, trouble ahead.
All this portentousness leads directly to tensions on the sub. Many of them. The set-up for the life-and-death action takes about an hour, during which the men run repeated drills, grumble about the new Comrade Captain, and look to Polenin for guidance. Being an exceptionally straight arrow, he instructs them to carry out their duty to the Motherland, while also standing up to Vostrikov for pushing the guys too hard during private moments. This contention will, of course, come to a head. And of course, the head has to do with a moral decision concerning the men — or, as these guys have it in their Russian accents, “de men.”
Like every other sub movie, this one features a claustrophobic setting; dark and rumbling exterior shots; and masculine stand-offs shot from odious low angles. Not to mention the various dead-meat-looking crewmembers — the spunky Pavel (Christian Camargo) and Radtchenko (Peter Sarsgaard), a rookie engineer with a girl back home, the selfless Gorelov (Ingvar Sigurdsson), et. al. — and of course, that big fat showdown between the two captains.
All these clichis in themselves are probably not insurmountable. And Bigelow has found her way around and through generic boy-movie domains more than once: Blue Steel looked at cop culture via Jamie Lee Curtis’ rookie, Point Break looked at cops and robbers via Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves on surfboards (an extraordinary erotic buddy pairing); each located twists and weirdnesses that exposed the conventions’ latent perversities. Surely, there are such twists and weirdnesses to be found in sub movies (or ship movies: ask Ensign Pulver), but K-19 is a reverent unto boring kind of film, so determined to show the authentic detail of the environment and the stress of the moment that it can’t get out of its own way.
A lack of agility is evident at most all levels. At every crucial moment, and at some that are less crucial, Klaus Badelt’s overbearing score kicks in (courtesy of the Kirov Orchestra) and the camera follows many men running around in tight quarters, dropping equipment, panicking and fighting (you can only imagine the camera operators for this shoot, scooting along as fast as they could, bumping into the set repeatedly). Though the film includes no battle scenes per se, once the core starts overheating, it threatens to cause a thermonuclear explosion, taking out a nearby U.S. Navy destroyer and, most likely, initiating all that mutual destruction.
So, while it neither shows nor venerates “war,” K-19 is a war movie. And in that context, it does try to do something of a piece with Bigelow’s previous work, from Near Dark to Strange Days, in that it investigates the conflicts between trust and fear, the ambiguities of memory and history, and the tensions between duty and identity. And the film goes to some lengths to present the Russians as recognizable human beings, which in this context reduces to “recognizable movie stars who speak English,” even if it does so by shorthand. Where the corniest version of this involves Radtchenko (he writes to his girlfriend, he keeps her picture close), Polenin is a slightly more nuanced type. Both he and Vostrikov reiterate, several times, their loyalty to their Navy and nation, but they also articulate their doubts: in the end, they must bond in order to save their crew from the radiation that pervades the sub.
Here the film outlines a specific kind of heroism, not the kind where you run around shooting mighty weapons at enemies. Given that they’re in a nuclear sub, as opposed to say, a U-Boat, the firepower displays are somewhat limited. As scheduled, they do send off a test missile, which allows the nuclear-looking explosion you’ve seen in trailers for the film, and the sub, roaring through the depths of the sea, has the customary phallic effect and makes a range of impressive noises: creaking, grinding, screeching. But even these shots tend to make the sub look more vulnerable than menacing: as it descends below “crush depth,” the sides start caving in: whump whump whump.
The heroes of K-19 are utterly self-sacrificing, guys who go into the reactor core area knowing that they will contract radiation poisoning, knowing at some level that they’ll die (and if they don’t know it intuitively, they surely do after seeing the first team come out, retching uncontrollably, faces falling off after only ten minutes inside). Oddly, this turns the film into an ideal 9-11 era movie, commemorating heroes who give up their lives to save others. Indeed, Bigelow has said that she’s hoping the film will help the Russians to come to terms with the heroism of the crewmembers. Following the incident back in 1961, they were not awarded honors or medals, as their efforts took place during an accident, not war.
But even with this noble end in mind, the film remains unwieldy and blustery, closing with a sequence suggesting that ritual — already shown to be misleading and illusory throughout the film — becomes a means to salvation and redemption, a way for the survivors to grapple with what’s happened to them, and what they’ve done (running a nuclear sub comes with moral and political responsibilities). K-19, like so many other anti-war war movies, allows the broader social and cultural systems to remain unchallenged; the obstacles are individual and the triumphs are individual. For all its efforts to offer other (say, Russian) views, K-19 is an all too average U.S. war movie.