If there's one thing almost all submarine movies do well, it's creating a corporeal sense of tension. It's a product of the genre's fundamental elements: inherent danger, high drama and human conflict in enclosed spaces, with no chance of escape and a requisite potential for war.
But if there's one congenital problem with submarine movies, it's that even in the good ones like "K-19: The Widowmaker," it's impossible to avoid a sense of deja vu.
No matter who plays the captain, he'll be the kind of principled but uncompromising leader who will take "this boat and these men to the edge because we need to know where it is." He will order emergency drills and time the response with a stopwatch. He will take the ship so deep the hull begins to buckle. He will butt heads with his equally strong but loyal Executive Officer who is beloved by his men. And some members of his crew will consider a mutiny when they think the captain is endangering them.
In "K-19," which is loosely based on real accounts of a nuclear accident onboard a Soviet sub at the height of the Cold War, this captain is named Alexei Vostrikov and is played by Harrison Ford with a very slight but credible Russian accent.
It's 1961 and Vostrikov has been given command of the state-of-the-art flagship K-19 while it's still in dry dock and under construction. The vessel's original captain, Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson) has been busted down to XO in the wake of an electronic failure onboard during a emergency drill conducted for the pleasure of visiting Communist party officials.
Wanting to rattle the United States' cage with a display of nuclear readiness, Moscow has demanded the sub set sail long before it's ready on a mission to launch a test missile from the arctic. Good soldier that he is, Vostrikov knows he must follow orders in spite of leaks on board, a 1/2-degree list to port, a vibration in the reactor compartment, and a lack of equipment and supplies that leaves the ship with an academy-green reactor officer (Peter Sarsgaard) and without radiation suits or radiation sickness medication.
Talented director Kathryn Bigelow ("Strange Days") finds freshness where she can in the stale air of the submarine, as demonstrated by the subtle shades found in Ford's character. Vostrikov is a proud man who projects more confidence than he feels and whose loyalty to his motherland is unwavering despite of a nagging lack of faith in his military and political superiors.
Although these traits become only a slight variation in Harrison Ford's standard screen persona, a strong sense of the character's history and experience come through, giving the film a deeper sense of humanity than Hollywood usually affords.
Bigelow also maintains momentum and creates a blistering, claustrophobic sense of tension even before a coolant leak threatens to melt the ship's core. When Captain Vostrikov takes the sub to "crush depth," she captures the stress on the crew's faces they listen to the hull cramp and groan. Then in the same shot she passes through the infrastructure to deep, dark water outside, where we can see the steel skin buckling with high-pressure indentations.
So you can imagine how potent the movie becomes when several young sailors must face the horror of going into the reactor chamber, virtually unprotected, to conduct repairs that could otherwise cause the ship and its missiles to explode -- while K-19 is so near a NATO base that the accident could inadvertently start World War III.
Bigelow doesn't pull any punches with the radiation sickness and the controlled panic that results. Just the sound of a Geiger counter picking up radiation all over the ship is enough to send shivers up your spine.
But for all its gripping and handsome execution, there isn't much about "K-19" that's unique or memorable. The pinnacle of sub dramas is arguably the German epic "Das Boot," in which none of the genre's inevitable element feels recycled. "Crimson Tide" boasts spectacular performances from Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman as they battle each other for command of their ship. "Run Silent, Run Deep" also has great tension between Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster, and World War II action. "The Hunt for Red October" has performances, special effects, an amazing battle sequence and cloak-and-dagger elements that take it deeper than the clichés that float on its action-movie surface.
"K-19" lurks somewhere in more shallow waters, along with the likes of 2000's formulaic but entertaining "U-571." Eventually it comes up for air right in the middle of a flotilla of Hollywood convention, with leading men acknowledging what they've been through together with manly Nods of Respect and defending each other before tribunals with lines like "...and maybe, just maybe, they saved all you as well."
I'm not trying to talk anyone out of seeing "K-19." It's a good movie by any measure. But "good" is all you're going to get out of me.