Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, starring Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson and Peter Sarsgaard.
1961. As the nuclear rivalry between the USSR and US continues to fester, the pressure mounts to complete the Russians' most powerful sub, K-19, on schedule. The craft's Captain, Polenin (Neeson) however, protests that corners are being cut and lives put in danger and for his trouble is removed from command. His replacement is Vostrikov (Ford), a disciplinarian who, it seems, will stop at nothing to put K-19 through all its paces on planned manoeuvres off the US.
But the new Captain is cursed from the start. Not only does he face the omen of the bottle failing to break at the sub's launch, but the correct anti-radiation medicine and clothing have not been stockpiled. To complicate Vostrikov's command even further, the much-loved Polenin is still on board and, crucially, the crewmen still regard him as their Chief.
For a while however, it seems that Vostrikov's confidence in himself and his craft is justified. Having pushed the crew and sub to their limits, he successfully completes the first missile test and plans the rest of the maiden voyage. But the Captain's arrogance and aversion to Polenin's advice soon returns to haunt him: K-19's reactor begins to overheat, leaving all onboard to wonder whether they are about to unwittingly trigger World War Three.
It's a military maxim that there is no room for egos on a submarine. Which prompts the question if there's any more room for another military movie set below the waves? After the likes of 'The Enemy Below', 'The Crimson Tide', 'U-571' and the genre-defining 'Das Boot', do audiences really want to see another submarine film? Not in America anyway, where the inspired by a true story 'K-19' went up against the summer blockbusters and flopped. But despite the clichés and heavy pacing, Kathryn (Point Break) Bigelow's take on events in 1961 still keeps your eyes on the screen.
With a suitably dour Ford and impassioned Neeson squaring off against each other, Bigelow's greatest achievement here is how she conveys the claustrophobia onboard. Getting the cameras into the crawlspaces of the crew's daily lives, she skilfully depicts the confusion of men who wonder whether their new Captain is determined to dive them to their deaths and just what they should do for their old one.
The major letdown is that this sense of no escape never finds its equal in the tension that follows. As things hot up, Bigelow fails to make you sweat as much as those onscreen, resulting in a film which in its later stages works better as a document of heroism than it does as a thriller. You might wonder if it would have made a difference if the leading men's roles were reversed, but (Ford's accent aside) both acquit themselves well, suggesting that more time should have been spent on sharpening the script and less on external shots of the sub.
Some will love this film and others will find it drearily routine. Either way Bigelow and her team do deserve credit for showing that no country has the monopoly on bravery. Sadly, that's one idea that's very hard to float these days.