No genre gets the testosterone churning like the submarine film, with scores of sweaty men packed under pressure in a long metal tube tensed to unleash lethal missiles. And it’s fair game for Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark, Strange Days), Hollywood’s most macho female director, who adapts this long-repressed true story of the Cold War. Fitfully moving and suspenseful, the picture nonetheless sinks under its turgid solemnity.
The year is 1961, and the Soviet Union responds to our nuclear-submarine threat by building a boat of its own. But the design and the construction of K-19, nicknamed "The Widowmaker" by those unfortunate enough to be assigned to it, are a little shoddy, what with leaks everywhere and plumbing that looks like a set from Brazil. Morale is poor as well, as can happen when the guy in charge of the reactor has a drinking problem, so the brass replaces the commander, beloved softie Captain Polenin (Liam Neeson), with hardliner Captain Vostrikov (Harrison Ford, whose expression changes from pissed off to confused and pissed off) for the maiden voyage. This conflict leads to a Crimson Tide–like scenario that ultimately proves secondary to a mechanical emergency threatening radiation sickness and worse. All too successful in evoking claustrophobia, and with its few moments of visual release and dramatic excitement a scant reprieve from the vomiting and the Red Army Chorus–like score, K-19 hardly serves as an adequate acknowledgment of heroism that might have prevented World War III. (138 minutes)