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USA 1995
Directed by
Tony Scott
115 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Crimson Tide

For nail-biting tension it doesn’t get much better than Crimson Tide, a drama that twins a Cold War style nuclear stand-off with a literal black versus white clash of individual wills.

In the "white" corner is Capt. Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman), the commanding officer of a nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Alabama, an old school action man with an unshakeable allegiance to the “unbroken chain of command”.  The black corner is taken by his just-appointed second-in-command Lt. Cmdr. Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington) a Harvard-educated officer with what is in Ramsey’s opinion an unnecessary and undesirable inclination to think. Against the background of an anti-American Russian rebel uprising, the Alabama is sent to position itself pre-emptively in case the rebels launch a threatened nuclear missile strike. The Alabama gets orders to fire but as it is receiving a new incoming order the sub is attacked and the radio malfunctions so that the content of the message is unknown.  Ramsey's decides to proceed with the attack but Hunter insists that he cannot without knowing the content of the second message. As protocol requires that the 2-IC assent to such an act, it’s a case of my way or the highway beneath the waves.

Director Scott doesn’t waste any time in getting to the guts of the matter. There’s a quick set-up of the political context coupled with a deft sketch-in of Hunter's status as a loving family man and Ramsey’s as a macho hard-ass and then we’re on board at the captain’s table where Ramsey starts provoking Hunter for his sophisticated ideas (a brilliant if improbable scene contributed by an uncredited Robert Towne).  From there onwards it’s Captain Bligh and Mr Christian all the way as the growing tension between the two men culminates in a mutiny.

Unlike the 1958 Clark Gable/Burt Lancaster film Run Silent, Run Deep upon which it draws heavily, Crimson Tide is only secondarily a submarine movie. The real focus of attention is the battle of wills between the two men. Here Washington and Hackman are blisteringly good with Washington’s super-cool self-control pitted against Hackman’s intimidating bellicosity. Add the context of a countdown to impending nuclear war and an attack from a rebel-controlled sub and there isn’t an inch of ground given in the tautness of proceedings. That is, until the squeamishly reconciliatory ending. It’s not of the order of Ford’s Fort Apache cop-out but it comes close. Still, you’ll probably be so wrung out by that time that you won’t care.

FYI:  The “Star Trek” scene was contributed by an uncredited Quentin Tarantino




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