'K-19' fails to surface

Harrison Ford's usually booming authority is like the Russian submarine he captains in "K-19: The Widowmaker." It's a bit leaky. And at 300 meters under the sea, we know what happens to little leaks.

His Russian accent works at the beginning of his sentences, then the American brogue creeps back in. But whether or not Ford holds his own with all the British, Irish (Liam Neeson) and Russian actors aboard (I'd put his accent bare-nekked last), is only part of the problem. Despite drawing from one of the most powerful and true stories from the Cold War, "K-19" is only moderately moving.

This is odd. We're talking about a scenario in which the crew of the Soviet Union's first nuclear submarine faces a monumental dilemma: to risk its collective life thwarting a nuclear explosion or accept help from the enemy.

Pretty compelling stuff, you'd have to think. Yet something's terribly muted about the whole affair. It's the lukewarm ensemble of characters. They're "Russians," not Russians. And few of them are particularly memorable.

This is the early 1960s. The United States and the Soviet Union remain poised for possible nuclear confrontation. So when the sub's reactor malfunctions, the crew is forced to take desperate measures. They are ill-equipped for the calamity. The sub is outfitted with suits for chemical, not nuclear, protection. The sub is near a strategic NATO base and an American destroyer that is tracking its movements. And if that reactor blows, it could be all-out war.

But the threat of nuclear contamination for the crew, and even war for the world, remains more intellectually scary than dramatically involving. We're worried about tough decisions and loss of life, rather than the plight of memorable individuals. These are plucky folks, but if they land safely, do we care how they will lead their lives back in Mother Russia? Not as much as we should. Consequently, "K-19" remains disappointingly abstract.


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