Since 1987, when her moody, edgy cult vampire flick “Near Dark” appeared, Kathryn Bigelow has been one of Hollywood’s more interesting directors. She went on to make “Blue Steel” (1990), a thoroughly implausible but gripping suspenser, and “Point Break” (1991), an equally preposterous but brilliantly choreographed heist movie; both featured some of the most viscerally thrilling moments to be found in pictures of the decade. These, unfortunately, were followed by the ambitious but mindless “Strange Days” (1995), which justifiably set most viewers’ teeth on edge, and a filmization of Anita Shreve’s “The Weight of Water” (2000), which apparently never received distribution. Even in her less successful pieces, Bigelow has always exhibited a dexterity in staging action sequences that few others could match, along with an ability to fashion deeply disturbing moods as well. The scripts she chose might have been of doubtful quality, but the pizzazz and sharpness she brought them often made up for their weaknesses, at least to some degree.
That’s why her new picture is so disappointing. A gloomy real-life story about a Cold War near-catastrophe involving a Soviet nuclear submarine, “K-19: The Widowmaker” lumbers along as turgidly as the injured boat itself. Bigelow manages to instill some tension into repeated scenes of the crew trying desperately to cope first with the demands of their drill-obsessed captain and then with actual emergency when one of the vessel’s reactors begins leaking radiation–poisoning the men and threatening a nuclear explosion–but for the most part the film is a tedious, talky tale centering on the divergent approaches of the sub’s two captains: the paternal, careful Polenin (Liam Neeson), who’s been removed from command of the state-of-the-art but unfinished vessel because his cautious attitude threatens its being immediately deployed to deter the Americans, and the rigid disciplinarian Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), whose ascent through the ranks was greased by marriage to a Politburo member’s relative and who’s willing to take risks to boat and crew to launch a test missile under arduous Arctic conditions in obedience to the party’s instructions. The duel between the two men is rather like a Russian equivalent of the struggle that Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster fought in Robert Wise’s “Run Silent Run Deep” (1958), but it’s less compelling not because the stakes are lower (the very contrary is true) but because Bigelow never manages to infuse the narrative with the sense of urgency it needs. Part of the problem lies with her stars: Ford and Neeson prove an even more uptight, poker-faced pair of combatants than Gable and Lancaster, and their poor accents vitiate a good deal of the authenticity in the production design by Karl Juliusson and Michael Novotny, which successfully captures the claustrophobic feel of the boat’s interior, and the dark, atmospheric photography of Jeff Cronenweth. (The old-age makeup that the stars wear in the final scene set in 1989, twenty-eight years after the incident, when the surviving crew members meet in a Moscow cemetery to toast their fallen comrades, is unusually convincing, too.) But as stiff as the stars are, no one else in the cast makes much of an impression either. It’s especially dispiriting to find Peter Sarsgaard, one of the most able young actors working today, so anonymous as the unprepared young reactor officer brought aboard the boat at the last minute. The part is a compilation of cliches–culminating in an overdrawn transformation from coward to hero–which nobody could have brought convincingly to life; but Sarsgaard’s strenuous efforts to make something of so cardboard a figure come across as an especially egregious waste of talent. Equally debilitating is the score by Klaus Badelt: it may be, as the production notes proudly proclaim, the first film music played by the famed Kirov Orchestra, but its “Volga Boatman” echoes are pedestrian, and the use of otherworldly choruses is the cheapest kind of device. (The description of the orchestra’s fine director Valery Gergiev by executive music producer Joel Still as “the premier conductor of the world” in the notes, moreover, is a bit of an exaggeration.)
“K-19” isn’t, of course, designed merely as the narrative of a naval disaster. As those angelic choruses suggest, it’s also intended to serve as an uplifting tale of bravery, self-sacrifice and soldierly loyalty in the face of the soulless Soviet bureaucracy and the political posturing of the communist regime’s military leadership. But for all the effort to make the audience get teary at the thought of the tragedy of the crew and the heartlessness of the party functionaries who care more about hiding their failures than honoring the men’s courage, the picture never really hits home on the melodramatic level–even in that last graveyard scene, where the point is bludgeoned into us all too inelegantly. (Indeed, the whole scenario of the two captains ultimately bonding in the face of a mutiny and Vostrikov’s last-minute transformation is never made credible. One might also justifiably wonder, in the closing crawls describing the fate of the various survivors, what happened to the two leaders of the failed uprising, whom some viewers might well consider the real heroes under the circumstances.) Jan Sverak’s smaller “Deep Blue World” conveyed a similar message better by humanizing its characters more expertly. (One can only imagine that now that the Soviet Union is gone and the brutalities of the regime have become a fertile ground for filmmakers, we’re likely to see ever bigger, more obvious treatments of these kinds of tragic Iron Curtain stories. Can “Chernobyl,” produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Michael Bay, be very far away?)
One last point. It’s curious that one of Hollywood’s all-too-few female directors has chosen another project that is so completely male-dominated. (“Point Break” was pretty macho too, and of Bigelow’s films only “Blue Steel” centered on a heroine.) No woman has a single line of dialogue in this movie. The two females who have the most screen time (and that’s very little) are a lady who christens the sub (very unsuccessfully, one might note), and the young woman one of the sailors leaves behind as he rushes away to his duty; we see her luminous face pressed against a fence as he departs, but that’s it. (She does reappear in the form of a photograph he cherishes.) “We Were Soldiers” had its problems, but at least it tried to show the sacrifices made by wives and fiances, too. It’s perplexing that Bigelow seems to have no interest in that side of the story she’s elected to tell. Women directors shouldn’t be restricted in the scripts they embrace, of course, nor in the way they choose to bring them to life; but in this case the lacuna seems especially odd.