K-19: The Widowmaker

“K-19: The Widowmaker” causes me to swell with pride and patriotism for the Communist Party and the Motherland.

No, wait, that’s what it would do if I were Russian. As an American, I think, “Huh. So the Soviets had some trouble with their first nuclear submarine, back during the Cold War. How about that.”

This movie, directly competently by Kathryn Bigelow, is playing to the wrong audience. Americans are not liable to be enthralled by an overlooked chapter in Russian history, unless it’s portrayed in an especially enthralling manner, which is this not. This is standard stuff-goes-wrong-and-the-whole-crew-might die fare, with an attitude about it that we ought to care just because it’s based on a true story. A true story that happened to another nation that doesn’t even exist anymore.

It is 1961, and the Cold War is tense. The United States has submarines within striking distance of Moscow and Leningrad. The Russians want to launch test missiles from their new submarine, K-19, with the assumption JFK’s spy planes will see it and the U.S. will get the message that it ought not make the first strike against the Soviet Union.

The commander of K-19 is Capt. Polenin (Liam Neeson), but when he can’t whip his crew into shape fast enough for the over-demanding higher-ups, he’s replaced with Capt. Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), who is as cold and dispassionate as they come. He works the crew through rigorous drills to ensure their readiness if the time comes. Since a full hour of the movie is spent on these drills, you can be assured the time will come, though it’s not enough to justify having spent an hour on all those scenes of pretending to put out fires, pretending to launch missiles, etc.

If the idea of Harrison Ford as a Russian sounds bad, you’re right. He only does the Russian accent on about every other word, though. Overall, he sounds like Harrison Ford doing a bad Russian accent. His character is distant and unknowable, too — one of his least charismatic roles to date.

Liam Neeson, a bit more trained in the methods of acting, doesn’t do much better at inspiring sympathy from the audience or at the Russian accent. This is a film of men — not a single female in the cast — doing manly things like fixing reactor cores and such, but darned if there is ever much tension beyond the basic question of who will live and who will die. These aren’t people; these are shadowy figures in a murky story whose lives are not particularly meaningful to us.

C (2 hrs., 15 min.; PG-13, some violence and gore, very mild profanity, an episode of mooning.)