Submarine movies are perhaps the most Sartrean films of the war genre: What better place to experience existential hell than a metal tube with no exit? The canned air, twisted spaces, and infernal company of others -- all are fertile ground for despair, especially if the sub in question is the Soviet shitbox that is the setting of K-19: The Widowmaker. With its malfunctioning gauges, leaky pipes, and a nuclear reactor on the blink, this sub adds a lethal twist to that most familiar of war-movie dilemmas: the tension between doing your duty and doing right by your men.
Although K-19 serves up the hoariest of sub/war movie cliches -- the dive to crush depth, the Bambi-eyed boy leaving his girl behind, the stiff-jawed tension between a kind captain and an authoritarian one -- K-19 is nevertheless an effective and moving drama. Perhaps it's the kinetic verve of director Kathryn Bigelow or the novelty of a Cold War story told from the Soviet point of view. But it might also have something to do with how well K-19 serves as a testosterone version of a chick-flick, in which the love between men is revealed in their willingness to die for one another.
Based on the mayhem that broke out on a Soviet sub in the North Atlantic in 1961, K-19 draws on the performances of Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson for much of its emotional heft. When Ford first stalks onto the screen, our first reaction is dismay. Whither went the swaggering, wise-cracking desperado that was Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Air Force One's U.S. president? In his stead we get Alexei Vostrikov, who looks like he was raised from infancy on a steady diet of cabbage, gruel and unfiltered cigarettes. A true Party man, Vostrikov is taking command of K-19 from Mikhail Polenin (Neeson), an upstanding and compassionate captain beloved by his crew. Neeson was too willing to value the lives of his men over his allegiance to the Mother Russia, we are told, and Vostrikov is just the fix that's needed.
Vostrikov doesn't get to captain much of a boat (as they call it throughout the movie). K-19 is supposed to be the acme of Soviet military achievement, a mighty machine meant to strike fear into the evil capitalist hearts of Americans. But rushed through production to ensure a timely display of its power, K-19 is a clunker. With a beautiful piece of visual punctuation, Bigelow lets us know just how bad things are: During the christening ceremony for the sub, the champagne bottle doesn't break across the bow. It thuds, much to the horror of the crew.
Despite this bad omen, Vostrikov seems purposefully blind to the state of his ship and neophyte crew, insisting on running hair-raising drills to increase efficiency. He stages a fire and then some flooding, and then stands by drinking tea while K-19 burns. But a crisis will befall the boat that makes a mockery of all his simulations of tragedy -- the nuclear reactor starts to heave and steam like a true portal to Hell.
That harrowing point is precisely where K-19 finds its heart. The dueling between the martinet and the kind father figure, and the scrabbling during drills, are fine and good, but it takes the threat of a near apocalypse to truly fire up this movie and its actors. Many films paint heroism as a beautiful thing, and Bigelow nearly falls into that trap, with church bells and a keening female choir accompanying the men's desperate attempts to fix the reactor. But she draws back, and shows how frightening heroism can be. This is no Top Gun version of glory (that deliciously American, maverick, cheesily grinning Tom Cruise stuff). This is the heroism of quivering chins and gritted teeth, so painful that an audience is forced to identify more with cowardice rather than bravery.
Of course, the stuffed bullfrogs back home in their Party uniforms remain oblivious to the catastrophe on the boat -- they're as remote as Vostrikov was during the drills. Crimson Tide, another sub movie, made much of a garbled message coming through from headquarters, like a divine puzzlement. Vostrikov isn't even that lucky. And how does an unthinkingly loyal son of the motherland decide what's right and what's wrong without command from above?
To this question, the film responds only with silence, and a plague (of radiation sickness) worthy of Camus -- advocate of moral resistance despite insurmountable odds -- whose conceits K-19 increasingly resembles the more things go wrong. K-19 may start off with Sartre and his alienation -- with his despairing, godless freedom -- and especially with his notion that "hell is other people." But it ends with a rebuttal worthy of Camus: Sometimes they are your salvation, too.