Written by Christopher Kyle and based on a real event, K-19 is the story of a serious submarine incident that occurred at the height of the Cold War. It's 1961, and capitalist-communist sparks are setting fires across the globe. A wall is going up in Berlin. Soviet missiles are destined for Cuba. An insurgency is incubating in South Vietnam. And American submarines patrol waters close enough to the Russian border to deliver ICBMs down the chimneys of the Kremlin. Nobody in the Kennedy administration may actually be thinking in terms of a pre-emptive atomic strike on Moscow and Leningrad, but the Soviet leaders don't know that, and they resort to the defense of Mutually Assured Destruction whose acronym wasn't MAD for nothing.
Hence the frenetic Soviet submarine program. Arm a nuclear sub with nuclear missiles. Post it off the east coast of the United States to threaten New York and Washington. Fire a demo that the American military will have to notice. And then breathe more easily knowing that your enemy can't kill you without dying in the process. The sub in question is the movie's title vessel, but its skipper is a perfectionist, an aggravating trait for a Russian military commander. Capt. Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson) wants a sub that actually works and affords his crew better-than-even odds against drowning. So much for Polenin's command. The brass replaces him with Capt. Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), a naval officer whose chief resume item is his wife's father, who just happens to be a member of the Politburo. Vostrikov has the connections, but Polenin has the knowledge, so the latter is forced to stay on as exec.
Nuclear policy makers are so desperate to get K-19 into the water that the sub is forced to sail in a laughable condition of unreadiness. The boat is actually listing to port on its maiden voyage. Developments thereafter read like events out of Joseph Heller's savage war parody Catch-22. K-19 leaks on its first dive. Gauges stick. A communications antenna snaps off. And when the nuclear reactor engine begins to malfunction, the crew discovers that they haven't even been outfitted with radiation suits so they can attempt repairs. As an almost laughable afterthought, this picture illustrates why the capitalist West ultimately prevailed in the Cold War.
At its best, K-19 dramatizes the tightrope military commanders must always walk, attempting to balance the duty to complete the assigned mission, inevitably dangerous, with loyalty to the well-being of the crew members, inevitably mortal. Vostrikov is a mission guy. Polenin is a crew man. And heads are going to butt.
Forgetting the ill-advised Russian accents, the cast members handle their assignments well enough. More than ever, this perhaps his High Noon performance, Ford reminds me of Gary Cooper, a man's man determined to be a man whatever the cost, the strain of circumstance communicated with just the hint of a twitch. And Neeson is better yet, more agile at registering inner conflict and understandable indecision in the face of no alternative but to choose. Moreover, though this element is regrettably underdeveloped, K-19 reminds us how ardently we courted oblivion during the madness of the nuclear arms race. We watch here, horrified, as men are drilled in the steps they will take to loft a warhead into the sky and thereby trigger the end of civilization. Their men did it, and elsewhere on the globe, wearing uniforms with different insignia, so did ours.
All that said, K-19 breaks no new narrative ground. The end is never in doubt. Both the dramatic developments and the emotions they elicit arrive with the freshness of paint-by-the-numbers. The film is long and decreasingly essential, and by the time we arrive at the requisite salute at the end, the tear in our eye leaks not from strong feeling but from weariness.