I think there might be more movies in my collection starring Denzel Washington than any other actor. It is probably just a weird statistical fluke. Anyway, I sat down the other night to rewatch the 1995 thriller Crimson Tide. Part of the reason I chose this one was because earlier that day I had viewed a documentary on the Marine Corps narrated by Gene Hackman. He is in Crimson Tide too. If you are in the mood to watch two grown men yell at each other while also having their fingers on the trigger of a submarine full of nuclear missile, well, my friend, this is the film for you.
In Crimson Tide, Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington) is the new executive officer (basically second-in-command) of the nuclear submarine U.S.S. Alabama, led by Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman). The film sets up an adversarial relationship between the two nearly from the start. Ramsey is the grizzled veteran who uses experience as his guiding light, whereas Hunter is the by-the-book newbie who naturally relies on his education and training. When events in Russia lead to a threat of nuclear war, their submarine is dispatched to the Pacific to stand on station, ready to rain destruction in that wonderfully antiquated Cold War policy known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). While out on patrol, the Alabama encounters an enemy submarine, and the subsequent battle destroys its ability to communicate. In the middle of that conflict, a new message that had been coming in was cut off midstream. Ramsey believes it to be the order to fire the missiles. Hunter feels it is too ambiguous to act upon and insists on a delay until they can reestablish communications and get the rest of the message. Where the breakdown occurs is that Ramsey needs Hunter to concur with the order to launch the missiles, to which the junior officer does not consent. This leads to to Hunter, citing standing orders and precedent, to relieve Ramsey of command. This act divides the boat into two camps, all the while the clock is ticking down to when a decision to initiate nuclear war must be made.
Sounds like an awful mess, does it not? By mess, I mean the situation, not the entire Crimson Tide film. That is quite good. Still, I have always been bothered by Ramsey’s gung-ho attitude towards firing nuclear missiles. If you do not want to view pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the aftermath of atomic destruction (and who could blame you?) because history is boooooooring, then check out some of the future scenes in the Terminator series. Frightening stuff. I get it, though. The military functions because soldiers follow orders. But those orders should be clear. History (there is that word again) is full of examples of armies meeting disaster and ruin because of unclear orders. So why would Ramsey be so eager to act on a message that did not explicitly give them the go ahead to fire? Especially when, in calmer moments in the movie, Hunter and Ramsey urbanely discuss the finer points of Clausewitz (I hope you are still awake at this point, dear reader, because this really is a good movie)? The tension here is that their previous order suggested that the Russians were about to launch themselves, and one of the hoped for ways of preventing total nuclear annihilation is to be the first to strike. Thankfully, calmer heads prevail, both in the film in the form of Hunter’s determination, and in the past. And this is part of what makes it good because, ladies and gentlemen, our country has been very close before to nuclear war.
The military does not typically thrive on the Christian concept of turning the other cheek, though Crimson Tide does have a moment that does come pretty close. When the final confrontation between Hunter and Ramsey occurs on the bridge of the Alabama with the younger officer holding the key to the missiles, the senior officer lashes out with his fists when the key is not handed over. Hunter takes the punch, turns slowly back to face Ramsey, but remains steadfast in his determination to stave off launching the missiles until the message comes through . . . only to be hit again. Yet he never fights back. Good on you, Hunter. Also, despite the rancor between them, when it is revealed that their communications are close to being reestablished, the two immediately bury the hatchet and resume a slightly radicalized conversation about horses. The point I am trying to make here is that they have the ability to forgive and forget even under the most trying of circumstances. When the disciples ask how often they are supposed to make amends with their fellows, Jesus responds with a number that is basically supposed to mean an infinite number of times. Of course, true reconciliation can mean many different things. Either way, Hunter and Ramsey come through their ordeal having gained a newfound respect and admiration for each other. Well done.
By the way, there is a lot of swearing in Crimson Tide. Thus if you have sensitive ears, or young ones with ears that are way too attuned at the worst times, then be warned. Otherwise, there is really nothing here that is too bad. It is intense, and there are people that die in this film. However, what really rises to the top is the heroism of people who are genuinely trying to prevent death and destruction.