I’m not a person who normally tends to watch action films – I generally find them too mindless to be enjoyable unless I’m really in the mood. But every once in a while, I find a film that does something different – that is thrilling and engaging in equal measure. Last night, I watched Crimson Tide, a submarine movie that sets up a giant internal conflict in an impossible situation and lets the tension mount from there. I’ve seen few films I’d describe as actual edge-of-your-seat watches, but Crimson Tide makes that list.
As the film opens, a nuclear submarine called the Alabama gets a new second in command (or XO), Lt. Cmdr. Hunter (Denzel Washington). Hunter is a different beast to the commander, Captain Ramsay (Gene Hackman), but they’re both united by a common purpose – there is potential nuclear trouble with an insurgent group in Russia, and the submarine has been dispatched as a warning sign and, at worst, a first strike. Tensions are bubbling away in the submarine, particularly as the threat level rises, and then the order comes to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike. As the order comes, an enemy sub picks them up and damages the Alabama’s radio apparatus, but not before half a new message comes through which may countermand the first. Cut off from its chain of command, Ramsay prepares to launch the strike, but he can only do so if Hunter agrees – and he doesn’t.
I’ve seen few films I’d describe as actual edge-of-your-seat watches, but Crimson Tide makes that list
Exactly what the correct course of action should be is the dilemma that runs through Crimson Tide. We build up to this point, which comes about halfway through the film, seeing Hackman and Washington butt heads in a shouting match that feels like the tensions coming to a head (but, in a way, only makes them worse). And what makes the conflict quite so interesting is that neither side is clearly right. Ramsay is a soldier trained to follow his orders and the chain of command, while Hunter is concerned with the moral implications of a nuclear strike, especially if it turns out to wrong. Both men are fascinating characters – intelligent, strong leaders, and so absolutely certain they are correct – and their ideological conflict boils over into two factions attempting to take over the submarine. It’s a level of nuance lacking from an awful lot of modern blockbusters.
So much of the film depends on both leads being sufficient centres of gravity, such that they could both be in command and make it believable as they advance their cause, and Hackman and Washington are well-matched. Washington plays it cool as the junior officer – soft and civil to disguise his inner grit – while Hackman is unapologetically tough yet measured. They share many impressive scenes throughout the film, their relationship developing from implicitly adversarial to explicitly so, and concluding with an interesting final scene that just feels right. Despite the powerhouse performances of the two leads, this is also an ensemble piece, with a lot of gems in the large supporting cast. Viggo Mortensen is excellent as the ship’s weapons officer, while George Dzundza shines as Cob, the chief of the boat who is forced into a difficult position as he places proper procedure above either man.
Scott makes it increasingly claustrophobic as the tensions heat up and the ticking clock moves ever closer to a potential nuclear holocaust
Tony Scott’s masterful direction helps ratchet up the tension. The submarine sections start slowly and subtly as Scott thoroughly shows us the procedure for launching nukes, laying the groundwork for the fact that these routines require cooperation, particularly between the captain and the XO. And this careful introduction makes it all the more impactful when Hunter refuses to back Ramsay’s command, leading to both men accusing the other of mutiny. From this point, we lose lighting, and the camera focuses closely on the faces of our actors. A submarine is necessarily a confined space, but Scott makes it increasingly claustrophobic as the tensions heat up and the ticking clock moves ever closer to a potential nuclear holocaust. He’s supported in his task by a great score from Hans Zimmer – driven by synths and driving the action, with recourse to an old navy hymn in a particularly poignant moment that I won’t spoil. Without Crimson Tide, Zimmer’s career and the shape of modern film music would have been vastly different.
Crimson Tide includes many of the staples of the submarine film, from the craft taking on water and the risk of sinking below a safe depth, but it’s unique in the kind of cerebral experience it offers. It’s tense and thrilling throughout, and its central dilemma is one that forces the viewer to think about the issues – the real battle here is an ethical and a procedural one between two men who are both right and wrong, and the film excels because it treats both sides so even-handedly. Crimson Tide boasts an incredible cast, perfectly paced script and fantastic direction that sustains the tension for all its worth, and it comes much recommended if you want a blockbuster with both brains and brawn.