As much a tale of human folly as heroism, "K-19" takes the audience to the brink of nuclear war and thankfully back again. Though not quite on par with "Das Boot," arguably the best of all submarine movies, "K-19" does many things extremely well. From capturing the claustrophobic intensity of life aboard the sub to the ear-splitting re-creation of this nuclear-powered behemoth breaking through Arctic ice, the movie revels in its broad-shouldered, masculine stance.
Sadly, those riveting scenes are few and far between, leaving director Kathryn Bigelow precious little to work with. Much of the early part of this underwater drama is as long and ponderous as a Russian winter. Again and again, we watch the bumbling crew get its sea legs in drill after drill. If we see one poor sailor bonk his head once on some overhanging pipe, we see it three times. Same with the doctor losing his tray of medicine and the galley crew toppling tray after tray of coffee.
Although "K-19" is "inspired" by real events, much of what plays out on-screen is pure fabrication. Case in point, the dramatic subplot detailing the battle of wills and leadership styles between Ford's and Neeson's rival captains.
Desperate to counter the psychological damage and military imbalance created during the Cold War when the United States sent its first Polaris missile subs on patrol in 1960, the Soviets rushed their own ballistic missile sub into service. Unready and possibly unseaworthy, the K-19 seems cursed. Leaks are everywhere; wiring below standard; and then, the christening bottle of champagne fails to break.
Far more troubling to the crew, however, is a bizarre, last-minute change in command. Capt. Alexei Vostrikov (Ford) replaces Capt. Mikhail Polenin (Neeson), who becomes second in command. Once the sub is under way, the stern, no-nonsense Vostrikov subjects the sub and its crew to those aforementioned grueling tests. Refusing to let up, Vostrikov's iron resolve culminates in a dive to "crush depth" and then a questionable fast resurface that sends the K-19 crashing through the Arctic ice shelf.
Miraculously, the sub and crew not only survive this near-death experience, they successfully fire off a nuclear test missile. Moscow is pleased and orders the sub to patrol the waters off the U.S. coastline. But the cheering is shortlived. More bad luck awaits the men of K-19 as they make way under the Atlantic: The sub's nuclear reactor cooling system springs a leak, raising its core temperature close to a meltdown. An eruption could set off missile warheads near a NATO base and trigger World War III.
In the film's key sequence, brave crew members take turns entering the reactor compartment to try to patch the leak. Each man exposing himself to huge doses of radiation. The doctor onboard, also a last-minute replacement, knows nothing about radiation poisoning. We watch as man after man emerges from radiation hell, staggering and vomiting like victims of some cheesy horror flick, their reddened flesh sliding from their bodies.
Most of the narrative in Christopher Kyle's script seems cadged from other military movies: The battle between Ford's and Neeson's characters escalates to the point of mutiny. The kid with a rosy-cheeked fiance back home stands little chance of surviving the mission. And men exchange gung-ho talk they can't possibly believe.
This conventional, stereotypical shorthand approach to the narrative does smooth over the visual difficulty of watching a peacetime submarine story in which the real battle is as emotional as it is physical. But Kyle and Bigelow can't leave well enough alone, and they attempt a curious midstream twist to the main conflict that makes no sense whatsoever.
As Vostrikov, Ford is the personification of military steel, a hardheaded captain single-mindedly focused on completing his mission. But we get little else from him. That's not the case with Neeson, however, who does a terrific job as the more crew-friendly leader. The standout among the 50 or so supporting characters is Peter Sarsgaard's Vadim, the rookie reactor officer who must prove his valor.
Solid summer entertainment, "K-19" takes its time getting to the payoff. But once it does, it stands shoulder to shoulder with the best military tales of bravery and honor. S
Style Weekly's mission is to provide smart, witty and tenacious coverage of Richmond. Our editorial team strives to reveal Richmond's true identity through unflinching journalism, incisive writing, thoughtful criticism, arresting photography and sophisticated presentation.
We make sense of the news; pursue those in power; explore the city's arts and culture; open windows on provocative ideas; and help readers know Richmond through its people. We give readers the information to make intelligent decisions.