K-19: The Widowmaker, based on a true story.
It's 1961 and the Soviet Union has finished producing its first ballistic missile nuclear submarine, the K-19. Following a disappointing practice drill, the government has brought in Capt. Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) to replace then-Capt. Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson) who will be kept on as an executive officer and second-in-command. The K-19 has been tasked with a dangerous mission; on its first voyage it must surface in the Arctic and fire an unarmed ballistic missile as a test run. Pushing his crew to the limits to make them the strongest, most trustworthy crew possible, Vostrikov tangles some with the friendlier Polenin. The differences are pushed to the side though when the K-19's nuclear reactor breaks down, putting the entire submarine at risk. Should the temperature rise too high, the K-19 would be destroyed in a thermonuclear explosion. Can they fix the issue in time?
From director Kathryn Bigelow, this 2002 drama is based on the true story of the Russian sub K-19, a ship that seemed doom from the very start (earning the nickname 'Hiroshima' from its crew). Reading up about the real-life incident, the story took some liberties with the history but generally sticks pretty close to the facts. It sat in my Netflix queue for quite a few months because I just wasn't psyched to watch it, but it ended up being a welcome surprise. If I have any complaints, it's that at 138 minutes, this is a long movie that takes a little too long to get into rhythm. Never boring, but not exactly exciting either in the early going. Composer Klaus Badelt's score is solid, using familiar Russian themes with some effective, quiet moments full of tension (and trust me, there's a ton of tension late).
That tension gets ratcheted up to a crazy level around the 60-minute mark when the nuclear reactor goes ka-put. It's at that point 'Widowmaker' finds its groove and the drama kicks in. The claustrophobic setting of the possibly doomed submarine adds to that sense of impending doom. The engineers and crew come up with a solution as the reactors' temperature rises dangerously high, an explosion coming up quick. The reactor has to be cooled with thousands of gallons of fresh water but a new piping and welding must be performed in the highly radioactive reactor room. Capt. Vostrikov must send men into the reactor knowing they will be doomed. That's basically the perfect dramatic moment, especially when the second and third crews see what the radioactivity did to the first crew, knowing now what awaits them. If that wasn't enough, the K-19 must also deal with the unexpected arrival of an American destroyer in the area and Russian government suspicion and involvement back in the USSR.
By 2002, Harrison Ford -- Indiana Jones/Han Solo himself -- wasn't taking a whole lot of roles (still isn't unfortunately I suppose). Other than his in-and-out questionable Russian accent, Ford does a fine job as Capt. Vostrikov. He's dealing with suspicions that he received the job because of his wife's political connections and now feels he must prove himself as a capable officer, commander and sailor. In the process, he drives his men to their limits and more. As his counterpart, Neeson is a very capable officer but one who has become a friend to his men too, not just a commander, an issue that comes up as difficulties arise and he must place his men in dangerous situations. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is pretty faceless, lots of similar-looking men who don't do much to distinguish themselves from the crew. Peter Sarsgaard is solid as Lt. Vadim Radtchinko, the inexperienced reactor officer.
With more of a personal investment in the characters, the drama could have been effective on a far more effective, emotional level. Steve Nicolson, Christian Camargo, and Ravil Isyanov manage to distinguish themselves the most, but when the intensity picks up, it's hard to keep track of people. It's not a deal-breaker because the natural drama of the situation more than carries the movie through. Watching it, it was refreshing to see and appreciate a story that is focused on the human drama coupled with a much bigger possible worldwide effect. Not a whole lot of explosions or violence, just that all-important drama. Not a great story, but a really good one. Well worth checking out.
K-19: The Widowmaker (2002): ***/****