Several years ago, while parsing out my love for the films of the late, lamented Tony Scott, I came to a realization: I am a Crimson Tide guy, living in a Top Gun world.
While the earlier film, a gorgeously shot and technically stunning action-drama about hotshot Navy fighter pilots, remains a major pop culture touchstone—a long-awaited sequel is due out this December—it is also one of the preeminent examples of style over substance, as well as the way Hollywood often serves as recruitment tool for our armed forces. Top Gun may not be the most jingoist movie of the Reagan era, but its full-on fetishization of all things Military Industrial Complex certainly proved the most influential for the propagandistic blockbusters films that followed—to say nothing of the actual propaganda put out by the Pentagon.
Surprisingly, there is no such issue with Crimson Tide, Scott’s grand return to the subject of Naval combat nine years later. That film (which many, myself included, hold up as Scott’s best) is remarkable not only for its own technical and aesthetic qualities–Scott s able to indulge his love of extreme color palette, frantic camerawork and editing, and musical bombast without overdosing on them as would in later offerings—but for its clear-eyed look at the moral limitations of duty, order and tradition. (you know, all the things upon which military service is founded).
Twenty-five years after its debut, Crimson Tide remains not only one of the best studio films of its decade, but probably the best bleeding-heart military action movie of all time.
It would be entirely wrong to consider Crimson Tide an anti-military movie, but it is about as close to an anti-war movie as any Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer joint could possibly be.(Yes, yes, I’m aware of and mostly agree with Francois Truffaut’s famous assertion that it’s impossible to make a true anti-war film, although it bears noting that he didn’t live long enough to catch Come and See.)
The story, loosely inspired by a real incident that occurred on a Soviet submarine during the Cuban Missile Crisis (a fitting origin given that the film’s hero is more or less accused of being a pinko at one point), plays out aboard the USS Alabama, a nuclear-armed US Navy submarine commanded by Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman), a highly respected officer whose combat experience gives him the leeway to flaunt Navy regulations as he sees fit (for example, he brings his beloved Jack Russell terrier with him to sea). When his regular executive officer falls ill and he’s forced to select a new XO, he chooses Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington), an Ivy League-educated tactician whose moral aversion to the use of nuclear weapons in combat—he explains during a key scene that “in the nuclear age, the true enemy is war itself”—makes him suspect among many of his fellow officers.
After Russian ultra-nationalist factions stage a revolution in Chechnya and seize control of that nation’s nuclear arsenal, the Alabama is dispatched to the Caspian Sea with orders to launch a preemptive strike should the Soviet radicals attempt to make good on their threats to launch nukes against the United States and Japan.
Tensions aboard the Alabama are already running high thanks to the disparate commanding styles of Ramsey and Hunter when the order is given to launch just such a strike. After a second order, possibly countermanding the first, is interrupted mid-transmission, Hunter refuses to give his assent for the attack, resulting in Ramsey attempting to illegally remove him from his post. Hunter successfully stages a mutiny, commandeering command while desperately trying to recover the second order before the enemy nukes have enough power to launch. The following hour plays out in real time, as factions loyal to both Hunter and Ramsey battle for control of the ship and, by proxy, the fate of the outside world.
Because Hackman and Washington are so commanding in their roles here, and because they embody opposing worldviews—one a hawk, the other a dove—it’s tempting to look at Crimson Tide as a morally ambiguous movie. Indeed, the film’s closing coda (it’s only real misstep) encourages such a reading. Despite this, there really is nothing ambiguous about the film—Hunter is entirely correct every step of the way; his questioning of orders and willingness to refuse them averting nuclear holocaust. Crimson Tide is the rarest of military action films: one that sides, emphatically, with the green, egg-headed dove over the battle-tested hawk.
Crimson Tide fits into a number of subgenres, including the submarine action movie (and by extension, a total Dad Movie) and nuclear doomsday thriller, but first and foremost, it is a mutiny narrative, following in the tradition of handful of cinematic classics, foremost amongst them 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty (the second and best version of the story) and 1954’s The Caine Mutiny.
These films–the former a fictionalized retelling of the 18th Century revolt on board a British merchant vessel, the later an adaptation of Hermon Wouk’s 1951 WW2 novel set aboard a U.S. Navy minesweeper in the Pacific—set the basic template that Crimson Tide follows: a new officer (in all three cases, highly educated but lacking in real world experience) joins a storied vessel with high hopes, only to find the man in charge is unfit for command. In Bounty, Captain William Bligh (Charles Laughton) is murderous despot*; in Caine, Captain Philip Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) is mentally unsound.
It is in this regard that CrimsonTide truly stands out. Captain Ramsey, while something of an authoritarian, is a mostly fair and entirely capable leader. Only after he has already lost control do the worst devils of his nature reveal themselves (mostly through his quickness to violence, but also by way of his subtle invocation of traditional racial hierarchy). But it is not these moral failings which necessitate his being deposed, but rather his stubborn commitment to following orders without questioning them. The very qualities that make him a good soldier also makes him the villain.
Because of his history with the Navy, Scott assumed they would be happy to back Crimson Tide, only to find they wanted nothing to do with it. He couldn’t have been too surprised: not only does his film an act of mutiny as an act of justified heroism, it also rejects the lie at the heart of Top Gun, which tells its audience that it’s possible to be both a proud rebel and proud servant. Rather than giving one’s entire self over to the apparatus of war, Crimson Tide shows that it is necessary for individuals to actively question and ultimately stand against it.
Fitting that as Scott moved his master’s focus from the heavens to the deep, his vision likewise took on added layers of depth.
*The Best Picture winner has recently found itself in the news thanks to a baffling Tweet from our idiot President, in which he claimed the film as one of his favorites while simultaneously comparing himself to the ogre-like Bligh. Trump actually does bear a resemblance to Laughton, but such comparison is still too flattering—Bligh (both the historical figure and the movie version) may have been a hateful bastard, but he also proved himself capable and brave, neither of which can be said of our Head of State– but so long as he’s making the comparison, we might as well ask where the hell Fletcher Christian is when you need him?
While we’re on the subject, you may be interested to know that one-time would-be Fletcher, former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller, is apparently quite the fan of Crimson Tide, having been known to quote one of the film’s most memorable lines—“We’re here to preserve democracy, not to practice it”—during meetings.