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Underwater adventure takes itself a bit too seriously in K-19: The Widowmaker.



Ever since you were a kid, Harrison Ford has been staring at you. He does it from movie posters, from billboards, from park benches. He’s not allowed to make a film, it seems, unless the ads consist almost entirely of his increasingly doughy face with a vague mixture of anger, longing and baleful confusion. It’s more than simply amusing to imagine what Harrison might be thinking behind that pensive gaze—it’s a party game. Some suggestions to get you started:

1. Mr. President, the fate of the free world means nothing when I think about the fate of my dog. His name is Charlie, and he’s a good dog.

2. Of all the truck stops on all the freeways in all of North America, I got this one slice of peach cobbler. They say these things happen in threes.

3. Why is my car parked over there, and what is my wife doing in the back seat with her legs up in the air like that? I just cleaned that seat.

You get the idea. Harrison takes himself a bit too seriously (watch his talk show appearances, where he invariably wears the stupefyingly bewildered look of a man who has never before seen a talk show interview), and his movies reflect that in everything from their choice of star to their choice of poster.

His latest is K-19: The Widowmaker, a fact-based drama about the first Russian nuclear submarine and the men who loved it. As directed by Kathryn Bigelow (Strange Days), it’s a gripping yarn only slightly less entertaining for its histrionics and predictability—and for Harrison, who stares grimly from the posters (“I invite you onto my submarine, and you say things like that to my daughter? You must leave now.”).

Harrison takes a rare risk by employing a chewy Russian accent in his role as a Soviet submarine commander. We’re no sooner shown the sub, built by a Russian fleet that really had no idea what it was doing in its mad attempt to keep up with the Americans, than Captain Polenin (Liam Neeson) is demoted for disobeying instructions during a training exercise. He’s replaced by Vostrikov (Ford), a dyed-in-the-wool company Communist who speaks softly until it’s time to yell.

The bad things happening to K-19 don’t stop there. The christening is a bit of a disaster, and the under-trained crew barely has any idea how to run this boat as it heads out on its maiden voyage. The testing exercises are harrowing, with Bigelow showing skillful use of the submarine’s cramped quarters to generate tension and paranoia. By the time they reach a base in the Arctic, one of the reactors is quietly leaking, setting up the panic and pressure of the film’s final hour as the crew attempts to repair a sub it barely understands while everybody gets contaminated with radiation.

There are two obvious points of recent reference from which to judge this film: U-571, director Jonathan Mostow’s gripping, similarly themed sub-drama from 2000, and Crimson Tide, the 1995 thriller in which Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman stage an underwater scenery-eating contest for the ages. K-19 lands somewhere in the middle, with Bigelow proving herself nearly the equal of Mostow in some of the more tense scenes, but also showing acumen for the character-driven style of Crimson Tide. The battle between the Russian captains takes on elements of a romantic quarrel, with Vostrikov refusing to abandon the ship while Polenin fights to save lives.

You’ve seen most of this whole dance before, and K-19’s ending goes far above and beyond the pale of plausibility to add layers of heroism to the noble dumb Russians who nearly started World War III because they couldn’t work their stupid submarine. If everybody on K-19 takes themselves a bit seriously, it’s obviously the influence of Captain Harrison, who often lets his gaze do the talking as the trouble thickens. How Russian of him.