For the edification of some and perhaps to the dismay of others, visceral kicks take a backseat to veracity in K-19. The co-production between Paramount and National Geographic Feature Films seeks, above all, to return us to a volatile time in history with all the authenticity it can muster. "For 28 years this story could not be told," explains an opening title card, and when we enter the global climate of 1961, it's easy to see why. The Cold War is raging, and this is the true story of a Russian nuclear submarine that very nearly exploded perilously near the United States on the Fourth of July. Hardly a point of pride for anyone concerned, despite ample heroism illustrated in thwarting the disaster.
Looking sternly dignified but significantly less Photoshopped than in the ad posters, Ford plays Captain Alexei Vostrokov, a mega-hardass whose loyalty to the Motherland is exceeded only by his enormously self-indulgent ego. When the equally dutiful but less aggressive Captain Mikhail Polenin (Neeson, game as always) is deemed by Admiral Bratyeev (John Shrapnel) and Marshal Zelentstov (Joss Ackland) to be readying his titular "boat" too slowly for service, Vostrikov is called to command, with Polenin to serve on board as his subordinate officer. Even while the submarine awaits completion in port, 10 men die in accidents, and when it comes time for the maiden voyage, the christening champagne bottle bounces off the hull without shattering. In one of the film's moments of obvious exposition, a crew member mutters about their impending doom. The line's unnecessary; we already see that this will be no pleasure cruise.
Ostensibly, the mission of K-19's crew is to emerge through the ice of the Bering Sea, to fire a test missile, and to sneak past NATO bases to its patrol station 400 kilometers off the U.S. coast, roughly between New York City and Washington, D.C. The boyish crew's unspoken destiny, however, is to become a pawn in a prideful, self-destructive game Vostrikov is playing with himself. The son of a revolutionary banished to the Gulag, the cruel Captain sees everyone on board as cogs in his bad machine, which he intends to push to -- and beyond -- its limitations.
Since director Bigelow -- working from a screenplay by Christopher Kyle -- is required here to jettison her wicked whimsy (Near Dark, Strange Days) in service of historical accuracy, the movie trades on bleakness and desperation, from a propagandistic movie screening to noble souls wasted. Well over half of the story is dedicated to perilously slow character development, as Vostrikov -- and, by proxy, Polenin -- run their men through seemingly endless and largely unnecessary drills. Even when we finally get some action ("Ice formations will not be suspended in the event of war!" barks the captain), it's due to arrogant orders, not -- unlike the groundbreaking Das Boot or Jon Bon Jovi rockin' the U-571 -- to big boys playing Battleship.
As a historical account, K-19 is impressive and intelligently delivered, but as a movie, it's missing a handle. Even in one of his very best films -- The Mosquito Coast -- Ford turned antihero and madman, but here it's just about impossible to get anywhere near his character. His blind, pointless ambition (a senseless dive to near-crush depth to "test the men") is the cause of everyone's grief, so when Vostrikov ends up lionized, it's all very hard to swallow. There's a wonderful foil presented in Soviet brass Vadim (Peter Sarsgaard), but alas, the character is sustained primarily as a walking plot point.
Apart from celebrating the spirits of valiant men whose honor is long overdue -- and doing it in high style, with composer Klaus Badelt's score performed by Russia's Kirov Orchestra -- K-19 serves us best as a warning. The film is unflinching in depicting the ghastly results of radiation poisoning -- which couldn't be more topical, as the Bush administration presently moves to bury up to 70,000 tons of radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain in the Nevada desert, a mere 90 miles from Las Vegas. Watching these determined Russian men in their Spam tin wrestling with killer nukes makes one fervid for a future in which untimely death is no longer our stock-in-trade.