Set in 1961, “K-19” tells the story of a Soviet Union nuclear submarine, helmed by Vostrikov, that is first sent toward the Arctic to test the capabilities of launching a ballistic missile and then to America’s eastern seaboard. During their voyage, the Soviet crew discover the vessel’s nuclear reactor is leaking. If it continues every man onboard will die. And the ship will explode, thereby causing the destruction of the American destroyer tailing them, leading to World War III. The iron-willed Vostrikov must contend with Mikhail “Misha” Polenin (Liam Neeson), the popular executive officer he replaced as captain, his mutinous crew, and his own bootlicking sense of duty and patriotism to see his men as human rather than pawns of a totalitarian government.
“K-19” offers an instructional lesson on the strengths and limitations, and the responsibility placed upon a leading man. A movie’s quality and financial success can live or die based on his charisma, sex appeal, range, and general presence. It can take years of bouncing around from bit part to bit part and slowly honing one’s craft before an actor is entrusted with that mantle. Few leading men in the history of Hollywood have experienced a twenty-year run like Ford did, beginning with “The Empire Strikes Back” in 1980 to “What Lies Beneath” in 2000. By the time he arrived at “K-19” in 2002, his box office and pop culture hold as the premiere leading man showed few signs of loosening.
“I got plenty of advice to not take that character. He’s not a very nice guy,” recalls an impish Ford in the behind the scenes featurette: “Making of K-19.” By 1991, the Soviet Union had dissolved, thereby symbolically ending the Cold War. Although “K-19” went into production a decade later, the memories from the 44-year proxy conflict were still fresh among audiences. Still, Ford took the role of the taskmaster Soviet sub commander Vostrikov, and it says much about the actor’s bulletproof reputation as a leading man that a major studio, Paramount, not only put money behind this, but made the film a summer release. Fascinatingly, as Vostrikov, Ford turned his back on his best qualities: He sported a hammy Russian accent, and barely brandished his beguiling smile or popped a witty joke. In fact, you spend much of the film despising this heartless character: a man driven solely by an unquestioned loyalty to the party.