Here’s the setup: World War III is about to erupt thanks to Russian coup-artists. The USS Alabama, helmed by Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman) is sent to prepare for the worst. But when the order to launch comes in, Ramsey’s executive officer, Lt. Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington), clashes with the Captain over a last-minute, incomplete order which could recall the missile launch. The result is mutiny, with half the ship siding with the Captain’s single-minded, stubborn decision to fire, half standing with the peace-loving Hunter, who wants a confirmation before blowing up the world.
Sound thrilling? You might be surprised. Though it was billed as a tough guy military submarine movie made by the folks who gave us Top Gun, Crimson Tide initially gives us about 45 minutes of the two principals philosophizing about life and war, trading quips, and smoking cigars. It’s a bit of an understatement to say that Captain Ramsey is an obstinate military man; he’s on the verge of being a Captain Ahab, hunting the Russkies like they’re a latter-day Moby Dick.
Then the action scenes kick in, and we get a genuinely gripping thriller with two armed factions of men trying to either launch or stop the launch of ten of the Alabama’s nuclear missiles. The chemistry between Hackman and Washington is full of tension and repressed anger as the characters are forced to maintain a surface civility despite an obvious dislike underneath. The sets constructed to recreate the USS Alabama and the sub combat scenes are incredibly realistic and make the film worth watching all by themselves.
Much has been made of the similarity between this film and movies like The Hunt for Red October and other genre pictures. While the inevitable similarities are apparent to some extent, Crimson Tide is quite different — a very tense film more in the vein of a psychodrama than your typical military action flick.