The period spanning the late fifties through the mid sixties was one of wide spread fear and paranoia. Commonly referred to as the ‘Cold War’ it presented all the deadly anxieties associated with a conventional even through the principle opponents were not activity firing at each other. The United States and the Soviet Union both amassed nuclear arsenals each sufficient to turn this entire planet into a dead cinder within minutes. The children, typically sheltered as much as possible from these adult concerns were ushered into the pervading fright through futile bomb shelter drills and learning how to duck under a quarter inch plywood desk for nonexistent protection. While this was a frightening time the crushing potential of annihilation looming over head was a golden era for the film industry with some of the most powerful dramatic movies ever made being produced. Films like ‘Fail Safe’, ’Bedford Incident’ or ‘On the Beach’ remain some of the most thrilling and though provoking movies of all time. Although the Cold War finally dissipated under the Reagan administration the themes contained in this type of stories are still relevant by their portrayal of otherwise rational human beings force to cope with unimaginably dire circumstances. Whatever actions they might undertake are certain to result in dire consequences that could threaten the viability of all life. From the hindsight vantage point of this new millennium this might sound overly melodramatic but it is a flimsy shadow of what a small child in school being herded into a windowless basement room as sirens blast outside. Filmmakers like the one represented here, Tony Scott lived through this time and the experience resonated in his films. ‘The Crimson Tide’ takes place in a time after the Cold War when the fragile diplomacy between The United States and Russia are once again on the brink on falling apart should this occur the world would once again face thermonuclear destruction. The conflict being played out between the two deadly super power nations is masterfully reflected in microcosm through a battle of wills as two dedicated military men clash. ‘Crimson Tide’ was made long after the official cessation of the Cold War but it stands as an example of the degree of drama the time inherently wielded.
Tempers between the two super powers have flared. An internal power struggle within the Soviet Union threatens to slip the nation apart. An influential and exceedingly nationalistic member of the political elite, Radchenko, has been rallying supports to his banner and recently gained control of a nuclear missile launch facility. If the Russian or American government interferes in any way he will launch. The US military have to prepare for the worst case scenario so the Navel command dispatched the nuclear strategic missile submarine USS Alabama on patrol. If Radchenko’s forces show any signs of preparing the missiles the Alabama will be given the order to launch a preemptive strike. Commanding the submarine is veteran sub mariner, Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman), one of the few remaining naval officers with actual combat experience. In need of a new executive officer he selects Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington), a military historian considered to be one of the most promising new officers in the service. Placed by naval hierarchy between the Captain and the XO is the gruff and seasoned Chief of the Boat or COB (George Dzundza) it is his task to oversee the routine function of the sub and see that the captain’s orders are carried out to the letter. The assignment gets underway as the two men size each other up. A lively debate after officer’s mess over the politics of war efficiently delineates the position of the top ranking officers on the boat. The Captain, a man of practical combat experience takes the direct pragmatic approach of a strong arm. In contrast the XO maintains the long term vantage point afforded from an academic study of war. Just as the national adversaries demonstrate differences on the social, political and ideological point of view these two men may be united in their nation pride and dedication to service but they realty intersect on policy or how it should be served. One scene early in the film has always impressed me takes place as the Alabama gets under way. The Captain and XO are standing on the Con tower looking out over the vast ocean that lies before them. As the men share a cigar in silence you see the men for what they are, two dedicated and loyal officers. The Captain notes the younger man’s stock has gone up; he respected the moment and didn’t ruin it by commenting on it. Here Tony Scott displays the subtle strength and economy of his directorial style. Anticipating the coming storm of turmoil he gives the audience a taste of the calm before the storm.
The action shifts suddenly into high gear when the Alabama’s communication officer receives an Emergency Action Message from the National Command Authority. The orders are to launch ten nuclear missiles at an instillation controlled by the rogue Russian. Before they can act upon the command a second message comes in but is interrupted before it is complexly received. The Captain makes his executive decision to proceed with the last complete message. The result of this will be to start a nuclear shooting war that will in all probability destroy both sides. Hunter is in favor of a more conservative course. The second, partial message might have been a retraction. Since the Alabama is not the only sub in the fleet he cautions holding back; to proceed with trepidation. Hunter refuses to consent to the launch, potentially an act of treason. When Ramsey orders his XO replaced the Commander challenges his superior creating a rift in the crew and a technical mutiny. Although Ramsey retakes the bridge Hunter manages to gain the support of the Weapons office. In the scuffle the radio is broken.
The crux of the film is the standoff between two men each entirely devoted to his country. When they come to blows the crew is caught between the two forced to chose sides, this means each man must weigh the situation and decide in all too short a time which man has the correct course of action. The matter of Nava protocol and maritime legalities seem insignificant compared to the potential of global annihilation. Hackman and Washington are without a doubt two of the most emotionally intense actors of their respective generations. Here they bring a depth to their roles that are textured with layers that make these men real and vital characters. The men are alike in dedication and the strength of their convictions but polar opposites when it comes to their philosophical tactical inclinations. The clash of titans depicted here makes this an enduring classic.