Nothing sets a race-against-the-clock scenario in motion quite like the impending threat of nuclear holocaust. In the spectacular new submarine thriller, CRIMSON TIDE, a Russian nationalist leader seizes control of a nuclear-missile base and threatens to start bombing the U.S. Standing between America and Armageddon is the USS Alabama, a Trident ballistic submarine that sets off for the North Pacific equipped with nuclear missiles. Ever since the end of the Cold War, Hollywood’s choice of bad guys has been increasingly random (Islamic terrorists, Irish terrorists — what do you bet we’ll now see a cinematic wave of middle American paramilitary terrorists?). But Crimson Tide may be the first movie that fully taps the precariousness of the new world disorder. The villains here are a genuinely unpredictable menace: one part old-style Evil Empire, one part new-style megalomaniac bomb thrower. And it’s the very murkiness of their malevolence that renders a military response so fraught with peril.
Directed by Tony Scott, Crimson Tide is the kind of sumptuously exciting undersea thriller that moves forward in quick, propulsive waves. The soundtrack practically sends the Alabama‘s deep-diving maneuvers whooshing through your intestines. There are, in addition, countless scenes of stoic sailors zipping across catwalks and assaulting one another with robotic techno-jargon, the sort that would send Tom Clancy himself burrowing into his handbooks (no matter how often I hear the phrase ”DEFCON 4,” it always sounds to me like some sort of roach spray). As a director, Scott hasn’t lost his machinelike rhythmic slickness. Yet he also shapes the movie with great skill, letting the performances and the tension build honestly. Crimson Tide is like a Clancy thriller reconceived by a neoliberal — a military showdown without the saber rattling.
As the Russian rebels fuel their nukes, preparing for an attack that could fly in as little as one hour, the Alabama is given orders to launch a defensive strike. But a torpedo blows out the sub’s radio communications, and a follow-up order is cut off midway. Did the order say to proceed with the launch, or to abort it?
What makes Crimson Tide a riveting pop drama is the way the conflict comes to the fore in the battle between two men: the Alabama‘s commander, Capt. Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman), a ballsy, cigar-chomping veteran of the Cold War, and his executive officer, Lieut. Comdr. Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington), a rising young military star with a far more ambiguous attitude toward authority. Ramsey, schooled on the brinkmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis, is eager to go ahead with the attack. He claims there isn’t time to wait for a confirmation order. Gradually, we realize that what he’s seeking is the ultimate high-stakes demolition game. He wants to go to war, to beat the enemy with the biggest gun he’s got. But Hunter, who’d like to avoid risking World War III, insists on waiting. He seizes control of the ship in a one-man mutiny that’s destined to blow up in his face.
The two actors turn the film into a riveting Oedipal military duel. By now, Hackman practically teases us with the ease of his arrogance. Ramsey’s power lies in the wrath behind his paternal charm, the way he goads people into challenging his authority. And Washington makes us register Hunter’s wary moral intelligence as a kind of physical force. The end of the world may be around the corner, but what holds us is the sight of two superlatively fierce actors working at the top of their game.
At times, Crimson Tide could almost be a nuclear-age twist on The Caine Mutiny. But Ramsey, for all his apparent monomania, isn’t the psychopath that Captain Queeg was. The real war that’s played out through Ramsey and Hunter is an ethical and even spiritual one: between aggression and empathy, between the Cold War religion of square-jawed certainty and the post-Cold War reality of reasonable doubt. Crimson Tide squares its sensual revel in military hardware with the realities of an era in which unchecked displays of force can lead more easily than ever to disaster. In its overcharged way, the film records the passage from one type of military consciousness to another. It’s about the limits — as well as the power — of American might. A-