Crimson Tide-Mutiny on the USS Alabama
( 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.