Ever since the collapse of communism, American pop culture has pulsed with nostalgia for the Cold War, exploring its currents and backwaters in story after story — be it Joseph Kanon evoking partitioned Berlin in his novel The Good German, Kevin Costner tackling the Cuban Missile Crisis in Thirteen Days or the late John Frankenheimer charting LBJ‘s Path to War for HBO. Now comes K-19: The Widowmaker, a lavish submarine pic that does something that never would have happened before the Berlin Wall came down: It glorifies the heroic sailors of the Soviet Motherland.
Based on a little-known, real-life episode, the story takes place in 1961, the heyday of MAD, the aptly acronymed theory of mutually assured destruction. In order to make its nuclear deterrent plausible (so the U.S. won’t dare attack), the Soviets believe they must quickly launch their underwater flagship, the nuclear-missile submarine K-19. The sub isn‘t seaworthy — it’s got leaks, bursting fuses, faulty reactors — but the high command doesn‘t care. And so Captain Alexi Vostrikov (Harrison Ford) is ordered to assume command of the sub, replacing its original commander Captain Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), who serves as his second-in-command. Together, they take K-19 on its maiden voyage, which almost instantly turns into a disaster, with overheating reactors, radiation invading chamber after chamber, and the clock ticking down toward an unwanted atomic blast that could well trigger World War III. To make matters even dodgier, the ship’s two commanders seem to be rehearsing for a Soviet production of Mutiny on the Bounty (by way of The Caine Mutiny and Crimson Tide). Where Vostrikov is an iron-fisted martinet of the old school — he‘s always pushing his men and the submarine to dangerous extremes — the humanistic Polenin sees the ship and its crew as a family, and worries that Vostrikov will get everyone killed rather than let his mission be tarred with failure.
On the face of it, it’s hard to see how K-19 ever got made — at least by Hollywood. The American public hasn‘t exactly been clamoring for an in-depth portrait of life on old Soviet subs; nor has it been crying out for a story in which Harrison Ford plays a Communist SOB. In fact, I suspect the only reason the movie got made was that Ford himself relished the chance to play a version of Captain Ahab–Bligh–Queeg. After years of polishing his image as an American icon, he’s now doing what Clint Eastwood has done for decades — chipped away at his heroic persona. He played a murderous adulterer in his last film, What Lies Beneath, and, if anything, he‘s even more unlikable here. His feathery-haired Captain Vostrikov moves through the submarine like an irascible owl, pissed off at both his crew’s slackness and the lousy tin can the Party has ordered him to command.
For years I insisted that Ford was the dullest living white man (this was pre–Chris O‘Donnell, of course), yet it’s always been one of Ford‘s strengths that his bland good looks and flattish line readings have been enriched by an undertone of grumpiness that feels habitual. Now that his features have grown so craggy — in K-19 he looks every day of his 60 years — this ill-tempered edge suits him. Although his Russian accent is only working part time, he dominates his scenes with Neeson, who, as usual, is as solid as a shillelagh and only marginally more expressive. In fact, Ford’s so good at playing the unpleasant tough guy, one keeps hoping that K-19‘s writers, Louis Nowra and Christopher Kyle, won’t feel the need to tenderize him.
Unlike her lead actors, director Kathryn Bigelow always goes full out, which is both her virtue and her curse. Over the past 17 years, she has carved out a fascinating Hollywood career, building up a peculiar body of work that includes a superb vampire pic, Near Dark; one deliriously goofy surf-heist hit, Point Break (whose hero‘s very name, Johnny Utah, made me chortle); an overintellectualized feminist cop thriller, Blue Steel; and the apocalyptic Strange Days, a savage commentary on the politics of voyeurism that was probably the most unfairly reviled Hollywood film of the ’90s. (Her last film, 2000‘s The Weight of Water, was never released in the States.) Determinedly unfeminine in her directorial style — she makes Oliver Stone look like Penny Marshall — Bigelow is uncommonly gifted at all the high-torque stuff that women aren’t supposed to care about. Bigelow likes the world of men, and in K-19 she not only gazes lovingly at all those fresh-faced young sailors (she has an eye for good-looking fellas) but displays an equal ardor for glowing dials, rocket blasts, and the masculine sense of duty that leads several of the lead characters to sacrifice themselves to save their mates and keep their country from blundering into nuclear war.
Bigelow is one of the world‘s best action directors, and working with legendary editor Walter Murch, she puts together some extraordinary sequences for K-19 — especially the one in which Vostrikov first drops the sub so far it is almost crushed by the water pressure, then orders it to race upward from these depths and crash through a meter-thick layer of ice. Perhaps because she began as a painter, she’s always had an instinctual awareness of how to use space, and the movie could serve as a textbook in the use of scale, from the crane shots of K-19‘s vastness in its snowy dry dock, to the edgy moving camera and pell-mell editing that captures the claustrophobic horror of being aboard a doomed submarine.
Unlike James Cameron or John Woo — to name two of her peers in directing action — Bigelow has never really been good at pleasing the mass audience. People complain that her work is cold, and that’s true. But she‘s also profoundly romantic, and this peculiar blend of the icy and the headlong can inspire unease, like watching two strangers making out passionately at the table next to you at a fancy restaurant: You watch, but you’re no part of it. Far from being a heartless hipster, Bigelow doesn‘t have an ironic bone in her body, and, watching K-19, I kept hoping for flashes of the delectable Russian sense of absurdity found in works such as Om On Ra (Viktor Pelevin’s sly novel about the Soviet space program) or My Friend Ivan Lapshin, Aleksei German‘s offbeat movie about an eccentric secret policeman in the Soviet provinces. No such luck. While what happens to Vostrikov and his crew is undeniably grim — can you imagine being sent out in a nuclear sub without a single radiation suit? — the story’s real interest should probably lie not in the situation but in the complicated ways that very different characters react to it. And this is what we never get.
Indeed, K-19 is so unnervingly square that it seems eerily like Party-sanctioned Soviet filmmaking: Its Motherland-loving sailors, myth-making shots of K-19 and displays of heroism are worthy of the Young Lenin Pioneers‘ Handbook. Although such cliches recall the aesthetic known as Socialist Realism, what’s obvious and bombastic in the movie is equally intrinsic to Hollywood movies like Saving Private Ryan and Pearl Harbor. Nearly everything annoying about the picture comes straight from the studio playbook, including a hectoring score complete with women‘s chorus. We might well dub its style Paramount Realism in honor of the studio that is releasing it. Bigelow has never made a film with so little going on beneath the surface, and I can just picture those meetings with the commissars from Paramount:
”Comrade Bigelow, your last few films have not pleased the people because you have confused them with your decadent ideas and bourgeois subtleties. Now, you must play the women’s chorus very loud — the Chairman likes them very much — and show many handsome photos of brave Soviet soldiers. You must deliver a timeless message of uplift. Should you fail . . . I‘m told the winters are very long at Oxygen.“
K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER | Produced and directed by KATHRYN BIGELOW | Written by LOUIS NOWRA and CHRISTOPHER KYLE | Released by Paramount | Citywide