Submarine movies usually make for tense drama. There's the danger factor--being surrounded by metal-crushing mega-tons of water and the claustrophobic factor--watching the men scurry around in tight quarters like rats. Yet with all that to throw in a near nuclear reactor meltdown plus rampant radiation leakage and sickness well that's where K-19 comes in--and it isn't pretty. In 1961 when Russia was known as The Soviet Union the heads-of-state rushed the production of a super- nuclear sub so they could show the U.S. their sworn enemy they meant business. As the film starts out the submarine is considered cursed and far from seaworthy but the military powers send in Captain Alexi Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) anyway to get the job done. The unyielding captain takes enormous risks with the boat and its crew to test it butting heads with the previous and well-liked Capt. Polenin (Liam Neeson) who is now second-in-command. When the reactor starts to meltdown Vostrikov makes some tough choices--decisions his crew finally recognize as necessary and sound ones. He and the men race against time to prevent a Chernobyl-like nuclear disaster which threatens not only their own lives but has the potential to ignite a world war between the super powers. Tense drama for sure.
In his later career Ford seems to be stretching himself as an actor. He plays a pretty nasty villain in What Lies Beneath--and now a tough-nut Russian hero rather than his usual American one. Sure Ford can try on different hats. He has certainly earned it and in K-19 does a fairly good job convincing us Vostrikov knows what he is doing and can lead his men. Yet somehow Ford's well-known charisma gets lost in this stern portrayal--and we miss it a little. The performance is very subdued while he struggles with a Russian accent which sounds authentic only about half the time. It's as if he is concentrating too hard on making the accent work and less on the actual performance. Maybe this hat doesn't work quite as well. Neeson comes off strong as Polenin the man the crew really trusts but he doesn't really have a lot to work with playing the second banana other than standing up to the unorthodox Vostrikov and then standing by his side when the time calls for it. The best performances actually come from the supporting characters especially Peter Sarsgaard (Boys Don't Cry) as the nuclear specialist Radtchenko. Sarsgaard is very effective in the role as he goes from being a cowardly know-it-all to a true blue hero.
You have to wonder what it must have been like as a female director making a submarine movie with a bunch of guys but director Kathryn Bigelow (Point Break) does an admirable job conveying the intensity of the real-life experience. Since this isn't a movie where the sub has to fight an unseen enemy in the murky depths such as U-571 or The Hunt for Red October the drama comes from within the boat itself and Bigelow focuses tightly on its crew and their reactions. First there is the way Vostrikov puts the men in seeming danger by pushing the sub to the breaking point. Is he a madman or a capable captain? The scene where the submarine breaks through an icy barrier to reach the surface is nail-biting. Then the reactor fails. You start to feel the radiation poisoning yourself as the men bravely try and fix it. The problem in the film is when we leave the submarine. K-19 goes on to explain how the Russian government covers up this near-tragedy blaming Vostrikov and forbidding the surviving crew members from talking about how they lost some of their friends. It feels like the film is cramming another story into about a half an hour where it's not really needed in the first place.