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Crimson Tide-Mutiny on the USS Alabama

September 3, 2012

( Spoiler Alert: Some key scenes and moments in the movie are described in detail, readers requested to keep this in mind).

What is more important, the ability to act or the ability to think before acting? Is knowledge more important than practical experience? Who is more superior, the man who has seen it done it all, or the one who looks at things in a new perspective?

After True Romance, I would rate Crimson Tide as Tony Scott’s best movie ever. On the surface of it, Crimson Tide is a full scale Hollywood popcorn action flick, two big stars facing off each other, plenty of  action packed scenes, that  include a submarine dogfight, men running frantically around in the submarine, control room chaos.  And when you add to the mix, Hans Zimmer’s  rousing martial  style score, it is the perfect  summer blockbuster. What however  gives that  extra  depth to Crimson Tide is  the dimensions of the conflict  between Capt Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackmann) and  Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington), more of a modern day  Mutiny on the Bounty  set on a submarine in this case the USS Alabama. The movie’s  title  is a nod to  the  name of the  University of Alabama’s  sport’s team.  Submarine flicks  have been quite a staple in Hollywood majority set in the Cold War era, notably  Ice Station Zebra and  The Hunt for Red October.  In the 90’s, however with the old Soviet regime a thing of the past,  Hollywood was in search of  new villains.  And in this case, the bad guys  were some of the Russian ultra nationalist groups, people who wanted to re establish the old Soviet empire.  It is one such group  in the movie, that takes over a  nuclear missile station and threatens a full scale nuclear attack.  As a strategic measure, the nuclear submarine USS Alabama is ordered to go on patrol, and launch a  preemptive strike in case the Russian installation begins to fuel its missiles.

The two men in charge of the submarine could not be diametrically different, Ramsey is a US Navy Veteran, combat hardened, an old school navy officer, who believes in shoot first and ask later.  Hunter is the Executive officer here, a man with a thorough knowledge of  military history and tactics, but with not much on field experience. The experienced veteran who has been on Ground Zero  vs  his junior  who has a fabulous knowledge of  military history, but who has not had  real  hands on experience. It is a situation that  has all the signs of  a conflict in making  that just  needs  a trigger.

The trigger comes in the form of a  second message, just before the missiles are launched, however  an attack by the rival sub causes the message to be terminated half way. The submarine is at a depth at which communications can’t be launched, it is facing assault from the Russian submarine, and Ramsey decides to go ahead with the launch. Hunter however refuses to comply as he believes that the second communication is an order to stop the launch, and this would be against procedures. Their differing viewpoints escalate into a major crisis, as Hunter and Ramsey face off each other. Hunter mutinies, orders Ramsey’s arrest, and takes command of the submarine. As Hunter tries to get the second communication, the Russian submarine, again attacks, causes damage to the Alabama. The submarine is now split into two groups, divided between Hunter and Ramsey.

Mr. Hunter, we have rules that are not open to interpretation, personal intuition, gut feelings, hairs on the back of your neck, little devils or angels sitting on your shoulder. We’re all very well aware of what our orders are and what those orders mean. They come down from our Commander in Chief. They contain no ambiguity.

One thing that differentiated Tony Scott from other run of the mill action movie directors was his ability to build up a scene dramatically, ratchet the tension up, and get the audience involved with the characters.  One of the best scenes in the movie is when Hunter actually defies Ramsey’s orders and places him under arrest.  Ramsey is apparently the man in charge or so we feel, he clearly makes it known to Hunter.  He has no patience with “games” as he contemptuously tells Hunter, nor does he believe in stuff like gut feeling or intuition. It is clearly a battle of wits between an experienced crusty “by the book” veteran, who brooks no dissent, and a man with no actual combat experienced, but having a feel that something is wrong there. Actually the entire Hunter-Ramsey clash could be set in any institution, especially in the corporate world. Pretty much privy to more experienced people who feel they know it all, have seen it all, and take a dissenting view in a dim light. And if that dissenting view comes from a person with no actual experienced, it is considered sheer blasphemy.  The key here is that unless Hunter and Ramsey actually agree together, the missile can’t be launched; it’s a sort of deadlock there.  And then it hits the high notes, Ramsey assuming he is still in charge, asks Hunter to be relieved of his command.  No one responds, there is a deathly silence around, the officers around know that Hunter is right in his own way. And then the clincher, Hunter asking Ramsey to be placed under arrest.  The way Tony Scott builds up the whole tension, the actual conflict between the two protagonists and the denouement, makes this one of the best movie scenes ever.

What I best loved though was the scene right after it, when Hunter knows that he is no longer in command. Just coolly retires to his cabin, and then instructs Hunter.

Short of the outbreak of World War Three, the ship sinking… being attacked by a giant octopus, I’d like to be undisturbed for the next thirty minutes.

Just a short scene, but summing up Ramsey’s approach to the whole thing, taking it on the chin, getting along. In spite of the showdown, both Hunter and Ramsey still have immense respect for each other. For that matter neither  Hunter nor Ramsey  are fully good or bad. Both are characters  taking  a decision in the way  they feel is best handled to the situation.

Ramsey was taking the decision based on his gut feeling and experience. He could not delay the attack, as the submarine was under assault. He did not care much about procedures. Ramsey is pretty much an old school officer. He believes in discipline, and also that men under him, must obey his command good or bad. As he tells Hunter “We are here to preserve democracy, not practice it”. His tactics might be useful in an open shut case, where it’s a question of all out attack, but in this sort of open ended scenario, it could backfire. Yet he is not a bad man, just someone who believes in his values.

Hunter has his own reasons for delaying the attack. Had the Russian Govt taken over, and the US Govt had requested not to launch the missiles, and had the Alabama fired, it would have escalated into a major diplomatic row. He is very much sure, that the second message is to stop the launch. But had his gut feeling been wrong, it would have resulted in a disaster for the Alabama.  In fact more than the actual submarine action, it is the confrontation sequences which are the best part of the movie.

While his movies have not been as cerebral as his brother Ridley’s, Tony did share the latter’s love for the visual feel.  Most of Tony Scott movies have been visually brilliant, usually establishing the mood and feel.  While the underwater scenes are just about good, the visual brilliance is seen in the submarine scenes. The diffused blues, the red lights glowing on the characters faces, the dim lighting, he does bring out the feel of the submarine very well.  Though most of the movie, you get the feeling you are in a real nuclear submarine.

Gene Hackmann has been one of the actors whom you could always trust to deliver.The role of the crusty, old school, worldly wise Captain, with a wry sense of humor, is the kind Hackmann would have done in his sleep. And he once again delivers hands down. He makes you empathize with Ramsey, not a villain, more of a modern day William Bligh, doctrinaire, and going by the book.

Denzel  Washington as the rebellious officer, going by his instinct, with a more cerebral approach,  is as good as he always is, and  matches  Hackmann scene for scene. This in fact  was Washington’s  first movie with Tony Scott, he would later  act under his direction  for  Man on Fire, Déjà vu, Taking of Pelham 123 and  Unstoppable, quite a successful combination.

In spite of a rather underwhelming climax, Crimson Tide, still remains Tony Scott’s second best  venture after  True Romance.  What  really counts is the conflict between the two lead characters, and  the sterling performances  of  Washington and Hackmann.  It is one of those summer  popcorn blockbusters, that has a brain, and is backed up by some smart writing.

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5 Comments
  1. Aniket permalink

    the conclusion of the movie was just perfect “As of January 1996, primary authority and ability to fire nuclear missiles will no longer rest with U.S. submarine commanders… Principal control will reside with the President of the United States.”

  2. Interesting analysis of the film Ratnakar. Although I placed the film in my top 10 Tony Scott films I felt I needed to place it low down (at nine) as it has never sat quite right with me. Crucially, my problem with the film is that I don’t buy into the central conflict. Denzel Washington’s actions are, for me, the correct actions and the only ones any sane crew members would follow. If the Alabama doesn’t fire yet the order is to fire, the second American sub would realise it wasn’t firing and fire itself. Therefore, the only thing the Alabama can do due to the hostile attack by the enemy sub is escape or counter attack and attempt to repair their radio communications. Because this doesn’t work for me, the film falls down. It becomes a boys with toys with everyone getting hold of a gun (which seems a bit dangerous to me since they are in a submarine and surely a missed shot – and these guys can’t be sharp shooters as they’re navy men – would crack the hull and possibly kill them all). A typecast Gandolfini was a caricature bad guy and Mortenson’s wavering allegiances stank of a weak plot device. The film is entertaining but I don’t really consider it a great film nor one of Tony Scott’s best.

    • Hi Dan, thanks for the comment,couple of things here. We really don’t know what the second message actually contained,Hackmann in his way was right to take a decision, he was going by his own experience and gut feeling. But again the movie does tilt to Denzel Washington, but if you observe, in the latter part, his inexperience shows up, he is unable to handle some crucial glitches going on there. So I feel that was the best part of the movie, in that it does not end up glorifying either character. I concur with the ending part though, pretty much underwhelming and a cop out, the reason why this movie does not make the classic grade.

  3. Fine look at this, Ratnakar. For the longest time, ‘Crimson Tide’ was not a favorite of mine. Primarily for many of the things Dan brought up, and how it compared with such nimble sub/techno thriller adaptations like ‘The Hunt for Red October’ (being a heavy Tom Clancy reader at the time). Yet, the strengths of what Tony Scott brought to this, especially the character drama and getting a couple of stellar performances from Hackman and Washington, has brought me around to enjoying the film for those aspects (save for that ending). Great start to the blogathon, my friend.

  4. I think both of you, Dan and Ratnakar, are correct in their own way. The brightest parts of this movie are of course my favorite Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman’s brilliant knock-out performances.

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