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'K-19' is a worthy story of heroism and self-sacrifice

A movie about a real-life nuclear accident aboard a Soviet submarine 40 years ago wouldn't seem to be the premise for a summer blockbuster – even if you throw in the estimable talents of Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson.

But because "K-19: The Widowmaker" is really a story about heroism and self-sacrifice – with the cold war painted in only as a colorful backdrop – it just may resonate with audiences.

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It has more in common with survival stories ("Shackleton" in Antarctica or even "The Poseidon Adventure") than the cat-and-mouse games of, say, Tom Clancy's "The Hunt for Red October."

Ford plays Capt. Alexi Vostrikov, who has been assigned to lead K-19 on a crucial mission – the test launch of a missile that will show that the Soviet Union is capable of striking the US from a submarine.

In the minds of Kremlin strategists, this will prevent the US from attacking the Motherland with a nuclear first strike.

Vostrikov bumps popular Capt. Mikhail Polenin (Neeson) down to executive officer and creates tension on board. When the reactor fails and a nuclear explosion that might trigger war with the US is imminent, which form of leadership will save K-19: Vostrikov's discipline or Polenin's humanity?

Ford's Vostrikov looks beefier than his usual action heroes, but beneath the puffy red cheeks a familiar crooked grin still breaks out, and above are the always-alert eyes. Neeson's Polenin oozes humility, integrity, and decency. Their Captain Bligh vs. Fletcher Christian standoff, however, resolves in an unexpected way.

Director Kathryn Bigelow mixes action scenes with telling dialogue. We get shots of dripping pipes and cramped quarters, and hear the creaks and groans of a ship so badly built it seems to stand in for the whole corrupt Soviet system.

But in the post-9/11 world, heroes rise above politics and tap our desire to see the best instincts of our common humanity prevail. They do here. The story of K-19's hitherto unknown heroes deserves to be told, and this is a worthy telling.

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• Rated PG-13 for disturbing images of suffering from radiation exposure.