Into this silly season of flying dragons and mutant spiders comes K-19: The Widowmaker (Paramount), Kathryn Bigelow's tense, downbeat Soviet nuclear submarine saga. In action terms, the movie is a two-and-a-half hour decrescendo: white-knuckle sub maneuvers in the first hour, and then, in the grueling second, a lot of feverish soldering and radiation sickness. A movie this grim would be a tough sell in any month, but its prospects seem especially uncertain in summer, when audiences line up to see the White House pulverized, Manhattan under water, Baltimore nuked. They flock to multiplexes for colossal cartoon payoffs, not to see people waste away and stuff almost blow up.
That's too bad, because K-19 is impressive and heartfelt, and Bigelow uses every inch of the wide screen to make this rattletrap submersible a mythic deathtrap. The narrative was inspired by an actual—and long-suppressed—disaster; its emotional heft comes from the director's drive to memorialize a group of men who gave their lives to prevent a nuclear meltdown in international waters, at a time when Cold War tensions were at their zenith. The movie is also a portrait of lethal systemic rot, of a Soviet Union in which the form of things can barely conceal the chaos within, and in which history is ruthlessly rewritten to protect the illusion of an infallible Communist order. Describing the life and death of a pioneering colleague, the captain of K-19 speaks his own crew's epitaph: "He was not loyal enough to hold his breath when his life support system failed, so he never existed."
The time is 1960, a year before the Cuban missile crisis would focus the world's attention on the missiles aimed at each superpower by the other and on the nuclear submarines swirling around the continents. K-19 is about to embark on a historic voyage, and 10 men have died in the course of its construction and launch. Its own crew has dubbed it "The Widowmaker." The Kremlin has appointed an ambitious new captain, Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), for a journey to the Arctic Circle to fire a test missile. Second in command is the former and more conscientiously paternal commander, Polenin (Liam Neeson), who must watch in dismay as his "family" is put through a series of high-pressure drills and his sub tested to within an inch of its life.
Polenin knows that the chance of failure is high and that Vostrikov is needlessly raising the stakes. He has registered his outrage over substandard parts, the inexperience of key crew members, and the synchronous danger of incompetence and a potentially world-ending technology that is still in its infancy. But duty is duty—and what other option do he and his comrades have? Buoyed by onboard lectures and newsreels on the insidious evils of capitalism, threatened by expulsion to Siberia or somewhere worse, the crew is unlikely to turn to nearby U.S. troops for help even when catastrophe is imminent. They are in the toughest place on earth: between a gulag and a radioactive place.
As her movies Blue Steel (1990) and Point Break (1991) have demonstrated, Bigelow is obsessed with the icons of male action cinema, and she manages to be true to both the masculine postures the genre requires and the fear and self-doubt that make for more layered drama. She uses Neeson for his gravity and his eloquent helplessness and Ford for his now vaguely crumbling aura of heroic invincibility. Both stars are larger than life and yet desperately human; both are superlative. (And once you get over the strangeness of hearing Neeson complain about using "a thirty-kopeck insulator to do a fifty-kopeck job," they're acceptably Russian.) The breakthrough performance is by Peter Sarsgaard, who all but stole The Man in the Iron Mask (1998) with his cheeky John Malkovich impersonation (he played Malkovich's son), and projected a terrifying vulnerability as Brandon Teena's murderer in Boys Don't Cry (1999). Here, he's Vadim, the fresh-faced tech-school graduate entrusted with his first nuclear reactor, and the play of cockiness and what can only be described as sissyhood is right there in his visage. K-19: The Widowmaker will finally turn on Vadim's self-sacrifice or lack thereof—neither option a design for living. It's the central no-win scenario in a movie built of nothing but them.
Bigelow and the screenwriter, Christopher Kyle (working from a story by Louis Nowra), have a John Ford-like reverence for military protocol, the downside of which is a subplot that hinges on relieving the increasingly Queeg-like Vostrikov of command. It's the resolution that rankles: a pixie-dusted revision of John Wayne's paean to Henry Fonda—as the martinet who leads his soldiers into a massacre—in Fort Apache (1948). The movie's smugness toward men who would risk their careers (and lives) to head off nuclear annihilation is unworthy of the drama that surrounds it. The mutineers might be wrong; they are not disposable.
The script isn't always good about giving us our bearings. When the men devise a plan to cool the core with reserve fresh water, we don't know where it's coming from and what it is they're killing themselves to solder. That pipe leads … where? This might sound like nitpicking, but when filmmakers pass up the flashy disaster stuff to concentrate on nuts-and-bolts process, they ought to take special pains to show which nut goes to which bolt. After the sub leaves the Arctic Circle, it isn't clear which direction it's heading. One character reports that there's a NATO base 160 kilometers away, but it doesn't tell you where that is exactly—or where the sub sits in relation to both the United States and the U.S.S.R. Not a small matter, that, when the fate of the world is said to hang in the balance.
K-19: The Widowmaker is otherwise chillingly clear-eyed. Nearly every shot of K-19—sliding ominously through cobalt-blue waters—suggests an unmanageable leviathan; and the soundtrack is full of hollow booms and bongs and creaks, the melancholy groans of steel buckling in the never-ending silence of the deep. Although it's likely that the movie exaggerates the threat—would an accidental meltdown near the Arctic Circle really have induced the United States to vaporize Moscow without first asking, "Hey, guys: Did you mean to do that?"—it captures the particular anxiety of the nuclear-age warrior. It shows humans in a hopeless situation, navigating the unnavigable. You might even conclude that we shouldn't let this happen again.