#ThrowbackThursday – Crimson Tide

Original US release date: May 12, 1995
Production budget: $53,000,000
Worldwide gross: $157,387,195

Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide was one of two (that I can recall) movies from the nineties that centered around a submarine crew amidst hostilities between the United States and Russia, with the second of those films being 1990’s The Hunt for Red October from director John McTiernan.  McTiernan’s film centers around a Russian submarine whereas Scott’s Crimson Tide follows an American crew.  In Crimson Tide, Naval American nuclear submarine commanding officer Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman) finds himself in a battle for control of his ship when his orders to launch are challenged by his second-in-command, executive officer (XO) Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington).

As the film opens, the initial few minutes send the erroneous message that the narrative is going to be deeply rooted in military speak and toxic male posturing, as is common for films that center on the military as its primary cast of characters.  This often includes tropes such as rousing speeches from the high command that are meant to both inspire and put the officers in their place (we get one of these and, though clichéd, Hackman makes it entertaining), bullying amongst the officers (thankfully absent here, though there is a spirited discussion around who drew the better Silver Surfer: Jack Kirby or Jean “Moebius” Giraud), and disconcerting sexist and misogynistic dialogue (also absent here).  Scott blissfully eschews the tired tripe that often makes wartime movies so repetitive and tiresome and instead tells a tale of shades of gray and power struggles amidst perhaps the most crucial and dangerous atmosphere imaginable.

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That imminent danger is the only reason this movie revolves around war and government, otherwise this type of conflict could be well-suited for virtually any environment.  These two men – Ramsey and Hunter – are battling over the most painstaking decision that one person can make: the choice to start a nuclear war.  At least, that’s how Hunter sees it.  Ramsey believes that, by firing, he is actively defending the world from attack by Russia.  Because of a technical glitch, neither man is sure exactly where Russia stands at that given moment, which adds depth, tension, and a moral ambiguity to the already captivating events that are unfolding.

Think back to The Dark Knight, when the Joker has one boat full of Gotham City citizens and another full of inmates.  He’s given both boats the capability to blow the other sky high, suggesting that if each boat doesn’t act first, they will surely die.  That’s the same dynamic at play in Crimson Tide, with two major differences: 1) the fate of practically the whole world is on the line, and not just two boats of people, and 2) this struggle lasts for an hour of the viewer’s time, not just a few minutes, which results in a consistently stimulating viewing experience.

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What I think I love most about the film is that there are truly no villains amongst our cast of characters.  Both Ramsey and Hunter sincerely believe they are doing what’s right for the country and for the world at large.  The officers on board do, as well, regardless of with whom they each choose to side.  Several of them – most notably Viggo Mortenson’s Lieutenant Peter Ince, known by the nickname “Weps” – struggle with the conflict, understandably seeing both sides.  So much – practically everything – is at stake here and the wrong call would be disastrous on a scale rarely, if ever, known.

Even before the primary disharmony is introduced, the narrative builds to it beautifully and in enthralling fashion.  We see the motivations and underlying beliefs of Ramsey and Hunter on display and come to become satisfyingly familiar with both of them along the way.  When they come to odds, it feels natural and organic, with both Hackman and Washington selling it all with complete conviction.  What erupts is a thrilling game of one-upmanship with the fate of the world on the line.

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I’m a huge fan of films that use a battle of wits and wills as the focal point.  There was another great one late last year in the form of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread and, despite the entirely disparate cosmetic natures, that film and Crimson Tide aren’t so far apart, thematically speaking.  Both films feature strong, smart, determined leads who are at once their respective narrative’s protagonists and antagonists.  Where the two stories separate is in terms of their scales.  Phantom Thread is an intensely personal story about the direction of two people’s lives.  In Crimson Tide, absolutely nothing is personal and all is a matter of doing what’s right and what’s by-the-book with the fate of the world at stake.  I feel like I don’t hear enough about this film, as it’s a masterclass in psychological storytelling with two commanding performances (I miss Gene Hackman) and a compelling premise.  Join me in revisiting this one and not allowing it to be forgotten; there are some ideas worth remembering at play, here.

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