Crimson Tide (1995)

Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman face off under the water in Crimson Tide

Director: Tony Scott

Cast: Denzel Washington (Lt Commander Ron Hunter), Gene Hackman (Captain Frank Ramsey), George Dzundza (COB Walters), Matt Craven (Lt Roy Zimmer), Viggo Mortensen (Lt Peter Ince), James Gandolfini (Lt Bobby Dougherty), Rocky Carroll (Lt Darik Westerguard), Danny Nucci (PO Danny Rivetti), Lillo Brancato Jnr (PO Russell Vossler)

“The three most powerful people in the world: the President of the United States, the President of the Russian Republic and…the captain of a US ballistic missile submarine”. So boasts the film’s opening caption. This submarine drama explores the truth of that, during a clash of wills (and more) between Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman) and his XO Lt Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington) over the launch of the sub’s nuclear missiles at a rogue Russian general. Ramsey has orders in hand. Hunter has a later, partial, order that may or may not be recalling the strike. Should the sub launch, or should they work to repair their radio and check the second message – possibly losing the narrow window of time they have to take out a rogue general’s missiles before he can launch them at America? Glad I don’t have that job.

Tony Scott’s submarine thriller is one of the best of the genre. It throws in all the clichés you would expect (the claustrophobia, the long dive, the game of cat and mouse with an enemy sub, the blips on the radar, the need to sacrifice someone to save the ship etc.) but presents them with a dynamic freshness (helped by Hans Zimmer’s exciting, award winning score). And at its heart it is a character study of two very different men, with very different styles of thinking and leading. Both rules are juicy, so it’s not surprising that two of the best actors in the game fill them out.

Denzel Washington is just about perfect as a Harvard-educated, committed soldier-thinker who believes in relating to the men as much as he does in firm order. Washington is careful not push Hunter towards being too cautious – under his command the Alabama bests a Russian sub in combat – and he may be alarmed by the impact of nuclear war but will reluctantly pull the trigger, but only once he is certain he has received the correct orders. A lot of the film depends on Washington’s natural moral authority, as well as his mix of forceful reserve and relatability. 

You need a big actor to not get steamrollered by Washington in those argument scenes – and few have the authority of Gene Hackman. Hackman is way too smart an actor to make the captain what he could have been in lesser hands – a trigger happy autocrat. Ramsey may be an old hand who believes in telling men what he wants and expecting delivery or a boot in their ass. But he’s not uncaring, he’s well-read, thoughtful, articulate and capable of acts of kindness and generosity. But he’s also a man rigid in his intent when he believes he is doing the right thing – and Hackman is always careful to establish that his intent on launching missiles is because he believes he is protecting innocent civilians back home.

The film becomes a compelling clash of tempers between two men who firmly believe they are both doing the right thing. The film is careful to throw up the fundamental lack of compatibility between the two from the start, even if it is tinged with respect. Their backgrounds, methods of discipline even ways of thinking about their role are different. There is an unspoken racial tension under the film, not because anyone in it is racist, but rather as Washington’s Hunter represents all round a newer America (an educated Black-American officer) that makes Hackman’s naval old hand feel like a relic of Cold War thinking.

But the film is, at heart, sympathetic towards both men, and probably places more blame on the system (an Admiral later reassures us both men were both right and wrong). Scott’s film with its expected flashy style (Scott loves the stark red lighting of the sub at alarm, mixed with the blaring greens of radar screens and the cool blues of sub interiors) gets a wonderful sense of the claustrophobia affecting decisions. Every character is a sweaty mess, while the sub seems to spend half the movie at an angle, forcing the crew to virtually pull themselves through it. 

The final hour takes place almost in real time, and covers the pressure cooker of men forced to make world-destroying decisions, cut-off under the ocean from any idea of what’s going on in the world, in extreme temperatures on little sleep. It’s a world of butch extreme masculinity – another way that makes Washington’s more cultured Hunter seem strangely other. Sweat pours off the men (the camera frequently focuses in on sweat-dripping faces). The officers of the ship generally come out badly, with Viggo Mortensen in particular a weak-willed man flip-flopping from side-to-side during the various changes of command on the sub. Many of the rest think little about what they are doing, and it’s telling Washington is largely supported by non-commissioned officers and regular sailors. Perhaps that’s where the true heart of America lies.

The film was written by a smorgasbord of writers (Robert Towne wrote much of the Hackman/Washington arguments at short notice, while Quentin Tarantino polished up much of the rest of the dialogue – no wonder it’s sprinkled with pop culture references). Initial support from the navy was cut off after Bruckheimer confessed the film was not about a HAL style computer trying to launch missiles, but a potential mutiny on a submarine and a feud between its two senior officers. Scott’s front-and-centring of the human drama between two great actors is what makes the film work – and take its place as one of the classic submarine movies.

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