Despite being an opulent production that's partly a conservative salute to the noble duty an armed force owes to its country, K-19: The Widowmaker is likely far too discomfiting for most American audiences. For starters, it's about the noble duty of the Russian armed forces (with an undercurrent of venom for brash policy-makers). On a more basic level, the nightmare scenario depicted may well be too squirmy for summer action film audiences.
At the very least, such deviations deepen what might otherwise be a standard-issue Cold War potboiler. The welcome ambiguity of Christopher Kyle's script (inspired by actual events) and the dynamic direction of Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days) supply vital urgency to the rarely-vented claustrophobia of this submarine nailbiter. Besides, K-19 has a secret weapon in star and executive producer Harrison Ford.
Ford plays Captain Alexi Vostrikov, assigned to take over the K-19--a new (in 1961) ballistic missile submarine--from Captain Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), whose brusque devotion to his crew chafes against the impatient party line. Hasty Communist officials want the K-19 out at sea, initially to be seen as a deterrent by U.S. intelligence and later to patrol waters on the U.S.'s Eastern seaboard. Polenin insists the ship isn't ready (in fact, ten men die before the sub launches), but an equally hard-headed Vostrikov insists the men will do or die for mother Russia. In these early scenes (filmed partly in Moscow), K-19 resembles Apollo 13, with a crew leaving families behind to troubleshoot risky incipient technology. Meanwhile, Kyle and Bigelow efficiently establish the key relationships between the crew and their captains, as well as the tension between the twin leaders.
From there, Bigelow and Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch expertly ratchet up the tension, as Vostrikov orders drill after drill--many carried out at considerable risk--to test the crew. By the time the real crisis reveals itself, Polenin has openly doubted his commander's leadership, and the threat of mutiny arises to meet the likelihood of death for much or all of the crew. This typically inflated true story overstates the looming cataclysm as one which would eclipse Hiroshima, but the personal cost is enough to make a considerably harrowing impact.
At the time of The Hunt for Red October, Ford selected the role of Russian submarine commander Marco Ramius before ultimately rejecting the project, thinking, "It's a submarine movie. Nobody goes to submarine movies" (Sean Connery took the role in the hit movie). Ford later sheepishly admitted he was wrong, and here takes full advantage of his second chance (he even gets a couple of "We sail into history!" speeches). Ford brings his considerable weight to the role, and Neeson ably counters him. For those keeping score in the dialect sweepstakes, Ford passes narrowly, while Neeson wavers in some scenes.
The film suffers from a stentorian earnestness at times, a sharp plot turn in the third act betrays false engineering, and some may find their tolerance for technobabble tested, but K-19: The Widowmaker's potent techniques and clash of ideologies hit home.