Tuesday 6 March 2007

Crimson Tide (1995) Tony Scott

As the film's introductory title card points out, the three most powerful men in the world are the US president, the president of the Russian Republic and the man in charge of a US nuclear submarine. In such a state of world affairs, a Russian extremist called Vladimir Radchenko, obviously a fictional take on ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky stages a revolt that becomes something of a civil war in Russia. When he takes possession of a Russian naval base and nuclear facility that houses ICBMs, Lt Commander Ron Hunter and Lt Peter Ince head back to Annapolis for assignment. Hunter lands the executive officer position on the USS Alabama, serving under Commander Frank Ramsey. Given that Ramsey is Gene Hackman and Hunter is Denzel Washington, you can imagine the confrontations that they're going to end up having.

A few days into their mission into the Pacific they have their first confrontation, after the commander orders a launch drill while there's a fire being put out in the galley. Hunter thinks it's an inappropriate time but Ramsey thinks it's the best time there is. A few days later when the XO witnesses a stupid fight over a comic book argument he asks the captain to give the crew a little morale boost, but Ramsey is far too much of a tough guy to allow that sort of thing. he believes that the best morale boost is a kick in the ass. He's trying to avoid the situation that arises, that when authorisation to launch comes in his executive officer doesn't back him up.

Crimson Tide is a tight little film, around a couple of hours in length but which seems like half that. It's tense precisely when it needs to be, which is pretty often given the circumstances the plot calls for. Hackman was born to play this sort of part, the captain with huge responsibility and a required attitude to deal with it. Washington was also born to play his role, the highly educated, talented and principled officer who only has one thing missing: combat experience. The third real star is the sub itself, the USS Alabama, and how director Tony Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski handle the claustrophobic lack of space.

The rest of the cast are far less important but a few of them have their moments. In particular, Viggo Mortensen as Ince, who has served with Hunter before, shows some highly subtle facial movements that carefully betray the tension. Matt Craven, George Dzundza, James Gandolfini and an uncredited Jason Robards are all solid. What isn't solid is our confidence in the state of the world given the situations we're given. They don't have much of an opportunity to compete with Hackman and Washington though.

The beginning of the film tells us about the three most powerful people in the world. We all know that number one is a moron, the film's entire premise is that number two has been compromised and/or replaced and then it demonstrates to us very well indeed that number three doesn't have control over a damn thing. Life on the USS Alabama quickly becomes something approaching a war in itself. If this is meant to be a reassurance to us that reason and sanity remain triumphant over blind obedience, it doesn't work. What it does is show us that in times of complete chaos we can't rely on anyone to do anything because they're all too busy having pissing contests.

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