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It's playback time
Mourning the lost Kathryn Bigelow behind By Susan Gerhard

K-19: The Widowmaker.

WHEN A BURNT -out barfly noted early in Kathryn Bigelow's 1995 identity-politics action adventure Strange Days that "everything's already been done," audiences should immediately have realized that auteur Bigelow was going to spend the entire film proving him wrong. No director had ever cut quite so broad a swath through ideologies and genres – running premillennial tension, Rodney King-era rage, circa-'90s cynicism, and 20th-century class war through a traditional noir-action-romance sieve. What became clear when some of the stunningly hateful reviews of the film came out was that certainly no director had ever taken this much shit for it. A British film-crit bigwig notoriously refused to interview Bigelow because, he said, he would only be forced to hurl insults at her. Her offense? Bigelow had conceived of a very fictional device called "playback": addiction-forming V.R. tapes that replayed illicit scenes, or just innocent memories, for emotionally exhausted buyers, not unlike Spielberg's "neroin." What she had done with one very prominent hit of this fin de siècle smack was turn POV on its head and force viewers into an uncomfortable complicity as they watched a horrific rape scene. Truly accused, some critics and viewers caught in the web found this unexpected turning of the tables unforgivable.

That movie was labeled a Titanic disaster, and it took Bigelow a full five years to come out with another feature, the moody but meager novel-derived thriller The Weight of Water. This Friday, however, she's back in full blockbuster marquee action with K-19: The Widowmaker, and as you can imagine for the ex-mate of the former King of the World, it's playback time. Like all Bigelow projects, this one has an incredibly lofty goal: to be the first U.S. action film to look sympathetically and view heroically the actions of cold war-era Soviet military men. Like most Bigelow projects, it's a little ahead of its time.

That's the primary reason Bigelow's career looks so much better in rewind. She opened with fists flying at the intersection of theory and practice when brute force met Marshall Bronsky for 20 minutes on-screen in The Set-Up (1978). The film had two guys knocking each other out as they hurled names back and forth ("commie" and "fascist"), while philosophers Sylvere Lotringer and Bronsky hashed the "meaning" in voice-over. Bigelow, born in San Carlos and traveling through the San Francisco Art Institute before moving on to New York's conceptual-art circles, would create a variety of pieces the world wasn't quite ready for – a subtly plotted biker movie (The Loveless, 1981), a gorgeously landscaped Midwestern vampire flick (Near Dark, 1987) – before turning out films that just plain scared people. Thelma, Louise, and Nikita hadn't yet made "girls with guns" a marketable genre when Bigelow's Blue Steel (1990) was frightening audiences with gender-based vengeance fantasies. As the child of an abusive father turned cop, Jamie Lee Curtis demonstrated an anger that was just a bit outsize for the moment. Bigelow came back with action-heavy Keanu Reeves film Point Break (1991) before venturing yet again into the wilds with a butch, big-bicepsed, limo-driving Angela Bassett cleaning up the mess of white-boy-buddy Ralph Fiennes while they saved the world in Strange Days.

Recovery from that brilliant debacle took a good long while – OK, half a decade – for all concerned, but this week's action "comeback" lacks the nerve that's made so much of Bigelow's previous work bizarre and fascinating. The names riding over the title – Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson – hint that a more conventional brand of muscle will be flexed in this film, even if the subject crosses over to the other side of the cold war. The submarine-movie genre – and I admit that my favorite happens to involve Raquel Welch battling white blood cells (yes, it was a Fantastic Voyage) – has such profound limitations that it takes true genius to overcome them. Kathryn Bigelow has true genius, but can't.

The story is based on the true events of the nuclear-powered submarine K-19 swimming far too close to a Norwegian NATO base in the hair-trigger, duck-and-cover days of 1961. Four months after the Bay of Pigs invasion, the sub's nuclear reactor began leaking, and – if they wanted to avoid WWIII and the nuclear holocaust that might have spun off from a "first strike"-looking radioactive explosion off the coast of Europe – the crew needed to enter the reactor and fix the leak with nothing more than raincoats to protect them. That's exactly what they did, heroically, and exactly what they received no credit for from the "motherland." Eight men died on the ship from radiation poisoning; 14 others died over the next few years.

But even with another nuclear sub disaster, the Kursk, and another Soviet meltdown story, Chernobyl, in the fresher parts of U.S. frontal lobes, Bigelow's movie can't quite convey the true horror of radiation's invisible threat. Instead it's all about the adventure of submarining: Neeson squeezing through doors a few feet smaller than his own frame, repetitive drills, and ego wars between the dueling authorities of Neeson and Ford, the latter showing some beefed-up summer-movie-muscle arms whenever he gets the opportunity.

And no, the story doesn't really get into the messy details of the nuclear subs and crews the United States allowed to perish at sea, but in one very important sequence Bigelow's true grit squeezes past the censors. It's when the ship's party propagandist entertains sailors with reels of what they're up against: pictures of '60s America in all its disarray, reactionary politics and racism, talk of America's "greed" and "lust" – critiques of a troubled nation that, unfortunately, still stand. They're true U.S. stories, unfiltered critiques, and actually, not so easy to dismiss. They could be Kathryn Bigelow's gigantic statements to a patriotically overheated nation, but sadly, they get lost, soaked up in the flag-waving feel of this military yarn. It seems, oddly, that this incredible directorial voice has been reduced to simply soldiering on. 'K-19: The Widowmaker' opens Fri/19 at Bay Area theaters. See Movie Clock, in Film listings, for show times.