There are many reasons to applaud K-19: The Widowmaker, not the least of which is that it is such a hellish bummer. Here's the scenario (and it's based on a true story): In 1961, with the Cold War glacially raging, the Soviet nuclear submarine K-19 puts out to sea. Untested, undermanned and undersupplied, it is rushed into action by the brutal logic of the arms race. Its mission is one of straightforward intimidation: to fire a dummy warhead and then loiter menacingly off the eastern seaboard, within striking distance of New York and Washington.
At the helm is Captain Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), a second-generation officer whose much-decorated father ended up in the Gulag. Vostrikov, a last-minute appointment, inherits a creaking sub and a restive, sullen crew whose first loyalty is to its previous captain, Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), now serving under Vostrikov. Tension on the bridge is followed by mutinous mutterings in the officer's mess, as the unloveable Vostrikov orders one emergency drill after another and then plunges K-19 down to crushing depth, where great dings and dents ring out along the hull like the blows of a monster blacksmith. It is here that we begin to see the shape of things: This is to be a drama of climbing and falling dials (of depth, of temperature) -- tension's ebb and flow. The torque of the classic disaster movie starts to bite, the forces of worseness rotating and bearing down as the nuclear reactor at the sub's core blows a gasket. The temperature rises. Polenin blows a gasket. Finally Vostrikov blows a gasket. All the while, crewmen are staggering out of the leaking reactor, horribly burned by radiation. A technician patrols the hallways with a squawking Geiger Counter and a long face. K-19 is now a death ship, an apocalyptic cigar smoking itself on the seabed.
K-19: The Widowmaker is not a subtle film. At some point during production, it was decided that the actors should speak in Russian accents -- clip the vowels, roll the "r's," turn up the bass a bit -- and in order to enjoy the action we must make a parallel decision not to find this ridiculous. As the beleaguered Vostrikov, Ford is most effective: Stolid, dour and almost squat, he seems to have lowered his center of gravity for the role, to have stashed it down around his knees somewhere. As K-19 sets out from port, we see him grim in the sub's turret, head thrust forward, hunchbacked with the oppression of command. Now and again that familiar dogged, under-informed expression will cross Ford's face, the set of the mouth like a brave 2-year-old's, but by and large he remakes himself here. The claustrophobia of submarine life settles around his shoulders. Of course, one way to make a room look small is to put Neeson in it, and his Polenin -- angry, noisy, protective of his crew -- is a great foil to Ford's Vostrikov.
Bad moods were clearly pandemic in the Soviet armed forces, but when the two captains go head-to-head, something more is suggested, something like the awful, joyless burden of masculinity itself. In the heat of the action a rapprochement is achieved, and when these two mastodons pay each other the compliment of a brief smile, you can almost hear the cartilage creaking in their faces. The director of K-19: The Widowmaker is a woman, Kathryn Bigelow, and that may or may not have something to do with this. Certainly there are no women characters in the movie. In the early scenes, a fleeting red-lipped sweetheart is seen waving farewell, but she is quickly converted into a photograph, an image no bigger than a postage stamp that her doomed fiancé nurses like a little wound.
It is un-American to make a film with no women in it, and K-19: The Widowmaker is pleasingly un-American throughout. The emotion is clamped-down-upon, almost stifled. When the sailors get a moment of reprieve -- with the news, for example, that the nuclear reactor will not imminently explode -- there are no jockish war whoops or high fives, no "Yeah!" These Russians celebrate their own survival most soberly, with a handshake or two, a few grimaces of relief. The American presence in the film is confined to some reels of propaganda -- wild jazz, hysterical materialism, Klan rallies -- shown to the crew by their cultural commissar, one U.S. destroyer waiting on the horizon and a circling chopper. With the situation deteriorating inside K-19, the option of scuttling the vessel presents itself. The captain of the U.S. destroyer makes contact: He is prepared to rescue the Soviet crew if necessary. The idea of America beckons, like Xanax: the glow of help, something to take your cares away. "Are the Americans still offering assistance?" wonders Vostrikov. (Naturally, such assistance is stoutly refused.)
As noted before, K-19: The Widowmaker is not subtle. Its effects are cruel and obvious: dismay as the crewmen pull on their useless plastic suits before exposing themselves to lethal radiation in the reactor's core; horror as they emerge blistered and vomiting. One of them, a rookie at sea, can't do it; he breaks down before going in. A walrus-moustached submariner looks on, more in pity than in condemnation. No one suffers more than a coward, is the unspoken line. Vostrikov himself goes in and gets a dose, and we are not spared the sight of him ravaged by cancer in the aftermath, sitting baffled and swollen at bed's edge, his hair sparse as a baby's.
As the suffering inside the submarine assumes metaphysical dimensions -- as K-19 becomes truly accursed, a rotting Coleridgean hulk ("The Night-mare Life-in-Death" indeed) -- we are half-invited to see it all as payback for man's (communist man's?) godlessness and technological hubris. Didn't the prissy reactor officer tell his crucifix-kissing subordinate that religious icons were not allowed? And didn't the officer then peer lovingly at the fatal reactor and talk about the bright future that awaited? But the idea is barely explored: We're too busy watching those gauges climb and fall, climb and fall.
What really cursed these men, it appears, was the bald bad luck of being in the Soviet navy in 1961, and the details of this are well caught: the maternal softness in the cultural commissar's eyes as he pulls all his boys together for a group photo, the borscht on the mess table. Everything is half-fixed or half-broken or dangerously homemade. Red wine is indicated to slow the body's intake of strontium. A stentorian orchestral score (by Klaus Badelt), with great cellos plowing the cold waves, exults in the smallness of man and the grimness of the universe. When Vostrikov decides at last to ignore his orders and save his crew, Polenin tells him that he'll go to the Gulag, just like his father. "It's a family tradition," replies Vostrikov, with something like pride. No picnic, then, but a genuine disaster.