Director: Tony Scott
Writer: Michael Schiffer and Quentin Tarantino (uncredited); story by Michael Schiffer and Richard P. Henrick
Cinematographer: Dariusz Wolski
Producer: Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer
by Jon Cvack
I was certain that I had written on this movie, prepared to offer a “Second Viewing” take, only to discover that I must have confused this movie with its twin, The Hunt for Red October (1990). I’ve seen the film twice prior, far later in life than I should have, serving as one of the few twin films which is every bit as competitive as its sibling. Crimson Tide is perhaps the perfect metaphor for our state of politics; displaying the tribal politics we’re experiencing all the way down to the red hat.
After Russian rebels capture a nuclear facility, intent on using the weapons should either the American or Russian government provoke him, the Americans launch a fleet of nuclear submarines, led by the USS Alabama, commanded by Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman). Having recently lost his Commanding Officer (XO), he recruits the help of Anapolis and Harvard grad Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington). From the get go, we see the power struggle between the men. Ramsey comes from the old school, believing that success comes from doing the job as given to you rather than sycophancy; relying more on his intuition from this experience than any grand theories. He resents Ramsey’s education, believing it expedited his success and that relying too heavily on analytics endangers the mission. Nevertheless, with only a “short list” of possibilities, he takes Ramsey on.
Ramsey’s best friend is Weapons Officer Lieutenant Peter Ince (Viggo Mortensen) who’s in control of the missile system; joined by a band of other Lieutenants, including James Gandolfini as Supplies Officer Robert Dorsey. It was on this viewing - and likely because of the ongoing debate about race in America - that I noticed Dorsey’s first action in ordering a black private to answer a bit of obscure submarine movie trivia, which the private clearly has no clue about, then forcing him to do push ups in the middle of the bus as punishment
In traditional Tony Scott fashion, we get a grand set piece of the rain pouring down as the men fall into formation before boarding the submarine beyond, next to a ship where welding sparks fly down like a waterfall. Ramsey heads to a microphone and provides an inspirational speech, explaining how urgent their mission is.
Once aboard, we’re immersed into the labyrinthian and claustrophobic corridors, washed with bold blues and reds and an omnipresent haze. The officers assemble in the meal hall, and Ramsey and Hunter engage in their first debate; in this case about the ethics of using nuclear weapons. They debate Carl von Clausewitz’s famous declaration that, “War is politics by other means.” Hunter believes that it is simply an extension of what politicians cannot resolve while Ramsey believes it was speaking to the fact that war is rarely the appropriate choice; and in an age of nuclear war, there is never an appropriate occasion to use them.
After a freak fire bursts out in the kitchen, Ramsey races to help put it out. Moments later, and with one of the men fatally injured, Hunter carries out a launch exercise; during which the injured sailor dies. Ramsey questions whether the exercise was appropriate, to which Hunter says it was the perfect time for the exercise, offering the film’s second great debate for an after viewing drink. On the one hand, Ramsey is right that they should have taken care of the man first before doing an exercise, while Hunter makes a good point in that the men should be prepared at all possible moments, even when inopportune.
Later, they receive an Emergency Action Message, ordering them to launch ten nuclear missiles. With a Russian submarine spotted and approaching their position, they dive, receiving another message that gets cut off when they lose radio signal. Ramsey believes it might be a retraction to the order, but Hunter doesn’t buy it; ordering his men to commence the launch. At the time, to launch a nuclear weapon required the approval of both the Captain and Commanding Officer. In front of the men, Ramsey refuses to acquiesce. Hunter attempts to have him detained and replaced with someone who will carry out the orders (remind you of anyone?), but Ramsey cites Naval Law, flipping the detainment order to Hunter’s friend and Chief of the Boat (George Dzundza) who takes Hunter in, simply for the sake of preserving order.
So begins a thrilling second act as Ramsey commands the ship, trying to take out the Russian sub, and attempts to repair the radio. The tribal politics rule as a mixture of racism and camaraderie cause the men to pick sides; complicated when Ramsey’s friend Peter decides to work with the mutiny.
In the end, while Hunter and Ramsey and their respective factions stand at arms against each other, and the radio is repaired and we wait for the message to come in, Hunter goes full racist, asking Ramsey about his equestrian hobby and how a particular Portugal horse - the best in the world - is an entirely “white breed”; to which Ramsey replies that he’s actually wrong and that the horses are black. The message comes in, saying the Russian Rebels have been taken out and they should abort the launch. Later, as both men stand before a tribunal, we learn that Hunter has both retired and requested that Ramsey be given control of his own ship.
Hunter’s red hat was a particularly interesting element in today’s political landscape. While politics are never mentioned, it’s clear where both Ramsey and Hunter reside on the spectrum. We see that the crew is allegiant to their commander’s philosophy rather than to the logic of their actions. Some join Hunter because of his instinctual, mighty style, and preservation of racial structure; others join Ramsey because he shows compassion, deliberation, and an overall concern for the lives of men beyond the lust for power.
What makes the story work so well is ensuring that Hunter is as comparably complex as Ramsey. While initially made out to be a might-makes-right Sea Captain, we discover that, although wrong in this case, most of his actions and theories do operate within at least some degree of reasonability. In the end, rather than being the villain we expect him to be, we see a man of honor who was willing to concede that he was wrong and able to accept defeat. If only Trump could give it a watch.
BELOW: Great scene with Tarantino's flavor all over it
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