Unfortunately, the Soviet submarine developed a leak in her reactor cooling system which threatened a core meltdown. In K-19: The Widowmaker, two captains deal with the emergency: Alexei Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), a hard-edged, no-nonsense officer determined to accomplish his mission, and Mikhail Polenin (Liam Neeson), removed from the command of K-19 for not preparing his ship quickly enough, and now serving as Vostrikov's executive officer because of his practical knowledge of the boat. Despite constant friction between the two, a growing respect allows each to cope with increasingly horrendous conditions.

Considerable care has been given to recreating both the horrors and triumphs of submariners who literally carry the fate of the world in their hands. The nearly 400-foot boat is dynamically reproduced to the point where we almost feel part of the crew, sharing the threat of death and pain of confinement.

Producer/director Kathryn Bigelow filmed scenes in Moscow, where she also interviewed surviving crewmen, plus others close to people involved in the events depicted here. She begins the film well before the meltdown. Tension is high as the two captains emotionally circle each other, while the crew assures their beloved Polenin that he is the "real captain." Vostrikov counters by telling the crew that without him they are nothing; and without the crew he is nothing. Bigelow ratchets the tension aboard ship from the very first scene--an exercise--along with a series of ominous events which suggest that failure is going to overtake K-19's mission. Production designers Karl Juliusson and Michael Novotny skillfully reproduce the nuclear reactor, while Bigelow sees to it that we easily understand what is required to repair it. In the process of preventing a meltdown, sailors expose themselves to a high degree of radiation, suffering fatal burns that justify the film's sorrowful moniker.

Ford gives one of his strongest performances as a man who weighs every word, while at the same time being thoroughly convinced of his decisions. Neeson seems to suffer increasing anguish with a stiff upper lip, as he comes to understand and accept the reasons why he lost his command. Peter Sarsgaard, as a last-minute replacement to the regular reactor officer, has gripping moments playing a coward who rises to the occasion after watching others sacrifice themselves.

Ultimately, K-19: The Widowmaker is not a film about men sacrificing themselves for their country, but an inspiring revelation of the lengths to which honorable people go to prevent the outbreak of war at a time when nuclear weapons have rendered that prospect suicidal.