Saturday 5 August 2017

Movie Review: Crimson Tide (1995)

A post-Cold War submarine thriller, Crimson Tide expertly explores a tense scenario involving a high-stakes conflict among commanders.

Hunter (Denzel Washington) is the new Executive Officer (XO) on the USS Alabama, a submarine armed with nuclear missiles and commanded by Captain Ramsey (Gene Hackman). Ramsey is a cigar-chomping old school leader who creates his own rules but is respected by his men. Hunter is younger, more cerebral and willing to think through situations before pulling the trigger. When a rebel faction of the Russian army takes control of a nuclear facility and threatens to launch nukes at the United States, the Alabama sets sail in readiness for a potential war. The boat's officers include Zimmer (Matt Craven), Cob (George Dzundza), Weps (Viggo Mortensen) and Dougherty (James Gandolfini).

Hunter and Ramsey clash frequently as the sub approaches waters off Asia. Then an enemy sub is spotted, and at the same time orders are received to prepare for the launch of nuclear weapons against Russian targets. But after the Alabama sustains damage, including a breakdown of the communications system, another incomplete message is received, potentially canceling the missile launch orders. Ramsey insists on pressing ahead with the potentially world-altering launch of nukes, but Hunter demands a delay to verify the orders. A tense stand-off ensues, testing the loyalty of the the men on board.

Directed by Tony Scott and produced by the Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer power duo, Crimson Tide is a better example of what the glitzy 1990s could deliver in terms of cerebral-oriented thrillers. Mostly aiming for tension, mental strain and building drama instead of cheap thrillers and explosions, Scott makes good use of an original Michael Schiffer screenplay, and Crimson Tide is a fine example of the submarine war drama sub-genre, carrying echoes of classic command conflict dramas such as Run Silent, Run Deep and The Caine Mutiny.

The film's premise worms its way into a real but unlikely scenario. United States nuclear submarine commanders used to have a certain level of autonomy to launch nukes independent of final confirmation from the President. And the on-board situation conjured up by Schiffer was theoretically possible: both Hunter and Ramsey were correct in their opposing positions. With communications lost Ramsey was justified in following the last received orders and unleashing a holocaust. Hunter had enough reason to refuse to second that command. It's a compelling set-up and cleverly exploits the generational gap between the scar-tested Ramsey and the more circumspect Hunter.

But this is a Tony Scott film, and after a careful build-up the balance occasionally tips towards contrived thrills. Opposing forces are formed, guns are drawn, threats are made, there is a frantic race to fix damaged equipment and of course an artificial countdown clock provides a backdrop to a just-in-time climax.

The weaker moments are more than tolerable thanks to the fine form of the two leading stars. Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman are perfectly cast and expertly play off each other, Hackman comfortable as the seen-it-all crusty veteran confident in his own judgement, and Washington nailing the newcomer who has to tiptoe his way into a pre-established delicate dynamic between Captain and crew. When the two clash head to head, the screen positively sizzles. The supporting cast is disciplined, and Jason Robards makes an uncredited late appearance back on shore.

Crimson Tide streaks through the ocean on a mission to deliver taut entertainment, and the torpedoes mostly register satisfying hits.

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