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“In the nuclear world the enemy is war itself” says Lt Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington), during a rather spiky discussion with his war-hardened and instinctive Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman).
Two men: one Hunter, one Killer, I mean Ramsey, with the fate of the world in their hands.
Set after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Crimson Tide shows the fragmentation of the old ways leading to conflict and unpredictability both above and below the waterline.
This is a blockbuster thriller where the talking is as nerve-jangling and immersive as the action. Heart-stopping as it is watching torpedoes head towards the USS Alabama as they wait to release their countermeasures, the arguments and stand-offs onboard are just as shredding.
The end of the Cold War’s dangerous but reasonably predictable status quo has led to nationalism and rage, and what was the Soviet Union is in turmoil; after fighting in Chechyna spills over into neighbouring states, rabble rouser Vladimir Radchenko (Daniel von Bargen) starts whipping up fervour in Russia.
Soon the country looks certain to descend into civil war. Russian soldiers are defecting to the rebels in droves, taking control of several silos holding nuclear ICMs.
Amid fears that Radchenko will order a first strike against the US as soon as he gets hold of the launch codes, the US nuclear submarine fleet is despatched. Ramsey is due to set sail with his sub the USS Alabama, but with his deputy ill, Hunter is brought in to fill the gap.
They get on, sort of, during their interview; but Ramsey has a habit of asking questions and then drilling down on any answer that contradicts his own. It makes for several increasingly barbed onboard exchanges, each one accidentally needling Ramsey more, as theory and philosophy meets instinct and action.
Ramsey is an old school submarine captain, revered by his men because of his demands for high standards, his faith that they’ll deliver, and his record – he’s only of the few commanders left who has seen a war.
He’s also, when faced with a man who does things entirely differently, and who represents new ways of working and of making decisions, insecure and driven to fight back rather than consider the options.
Once underway, the claustrophobia is as much mental as physical (the sub itself doesn’t feel particularly closed in). A sense of isolation permeates everything, even before the EAMs appear. Once the crew are on the Alabama we don’t leave it until the very end. It’s a state that helps create a bonded crew whose members know they can only depend on each other, but which makes the later infighting and disintegration that much more shattering for them all.
More than once “Eternal Father, Strong To Save”, also known as the Sailor’s Hymn, plays mournfully in the background (it’s the one with the lines “Oh hear us when we cry to thee, For those in peril on the sea”)
And then an EAM – emergency action message – comes through, with orders to get read to launch their nuclear weapons. The rebels are arming their warheads and they’ll be ready to fire within the hour.
The tension and fear on the faces of the launch crew glistens through the tiny drops of sweat that sheen every face. But then an attack by a Russian sub interrupts a second EAM. Hunter urges caution until they can find out what was in the rest of the message in case it was an order to stand down, while Ramsey wants to fire.
There are several fail-safes for EAMs before launching nuclear weapons; checks and double checks of authenticity, crew members stating clearly that they concur with their crewmate. Ultimately the captain has to take responsibility for the meaning and authenticity of the message, with his deputy also concurring, so the rest of the submarine crew understand that this is the real thing.
Each level of approval takes them closer to nuclear war. The battles between fear, the enormity of what they’re doing, process and training play out across crewmen’s faces. Meanwhile their captain is trying to untangle himself from his own failsafe, Hunter.
Russia isn’t the only battlefield descending into a civil war, as on the Alabama old ways clash with the new. It is, in its way ideological too, the stakes just as high.
Watching Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman sparring is a sublime masterclass. It peaks with an extraordinary scene as Hunter has Ramsey removed from his position. The previously low-voiced and calm Hunter, voice rising, lists regulation numbers and precedent; while Ramsey, not even looking at his deputy, stares at the Chief Of The Boat Walters (George Dzundza) and argues loudly over his now-opponent. The Chief of the Boat sides with Hunter but it’s a procedural decision not one driven by respect or liking, and while Ramsey is down he and his supporters are certainly not out.
The ending is a bit of a damp squib but also rather sad, with both men in their pristine white uniforms, in the sunny open air. The comparison with the punishingly wet night when they boarded the sub, after an inspiring speech by the captain, couldn’t be more stark.
Director Tony Scott’s film is an audience-friendly example of perfectly-paced high stakes drama with a brain, its dilemmas both huge in scope and deeply personal.
Sure, at times it’s rather daft, and I’m guessing is far from accurate in places. It looks of its time with bright lights – grey, red, blue – lighting the uneasy and sometimes downright terrified crewmen. But in general it holds up extremely well, though I have to admit that cinema-wise I’m a child of the 80s and 90s (even if technically I’m a child of the 70s).
There’s a card at the end stating that from 1996 (the year after Crimson Tide‘s release) the authority and ability to fire nuclear missiles would not lie with submarine commanders but with the US president, though maybe at the moment we’d all prefer a couple of sparring seadogs to make the decision after all.
Watch the Crimson Tide trailer: