This is the kind of restrained, claustrophobic thriller that Hollywood has trouble with. While the scope of its "inspired by real events" story is world-shatteringly huge, the stage on which it unfolds is broom-closet small. A tale this tense needs scalpel-like precision. Instead we get sledgehammering dramatics.
Long-classified, the facts behind the tragic test of the Soviet's first nuclear sub are the stuff of gripping drama. It's 1961 and the Cold War's raging, so the Reds send the experimental sub K-19 into Arctic waters as a show of power. Problem is, the sub's a clunker - - the instruments don't work, the hull leaks and the nuclear reactor looks like a boot-sale reject.
Still, the mission is of utmost importance and when Captain Polenin (Liam Neeson) wisely balks at endangering his crew by taking the sub on its first run, he's forced to serve under hard-nosed Captain Vostrikov (Harrison Ford). The new chain of command leads to some sparring between Ford and Neeson, but compared to Hackman and Washington in the far more juiced Crimson Tide, the friction barely strikes sparks.
All seems to be going well as Vostrikov puts the sub through its paces, but an inexperienced nuclear technician doesn't realise just how badly the reactor is faring until it goes out of control and blows the cooling system. While the danger to crew is life-threatening, a nuclear explosion would also take out the American battleship shadowing the sub, and lead to all-out war if the USA mistook it for an attack. The crew better shape up or the world ships out.
The big question, then: just how bad is Ford's Russian accent? Answer: very, but at least he tries. Given that for most of the movie he plays Vostrikov with less emotion than one of those totems on Easter Island, he would have seemed counterfeit even with pitch-perfect dialect. A deadpan presence at the best of times, Ford's attempts at being enigmatic simply fall flat (Vostrikov's so stolid and craggy that when he shaves, you half expect to see a chisel in his hand). Granted, his character's supposed to be an austere, unflusterable type but he remains stubbornly inanimate until the final reel, by which time a game crew have won him over.
Speaking of the crew, they pretty much make the movie. Director Kathryn Bigelow, who made her name crafting macho actioners like Point Break and Strange Days, wisely eschews second-tier Tinseltowners like Freddie Prinze Jr, Chris Klein or Christian Slater. Instead, she's amassed a group of authentic-looking unknowns who are remarkably convincing as the terrified crew of the sub charmingly dubbed The Widowmaker.
Still, the first hour feels padded and Ford's a major miscalculation, designed to draw a legion of high-octane action fans to a moody thriller that's more cerebral than sensational.