Crimson Tide

crimson tideReleased: 1995
Director: Tony Scott
Starring: Gene Hackman, Denzel Washington

A tense thriller with great acting


A submarine, as brilliantly portrayed in J.S. Law’s cracking novel Tenacity, is a fabulous setting for a tense and claustrophobic thriller. There’s limited space, a small group of people and no escape. Throw in highly trained military officers, nuclear weapons and the threat of the world being blown to kingdom come and a submarine is pretty much the tensest place in the world. I’m always surprised there aren’t more films set on board submarines. One of the best of the limited number is Crimson Tide.

Set against the backdrop of potential nuclear war triggered by Russian extremists, the Commander and Executive Officer of nuclear the USS Alabama are locked in a dangerous conflict when they disagree on whether orders to launch their ballistic missiles have been countermanded or not. As time runs out and the ship’s crew become torn between their two senior officers it seems that the fate of nuclear war above the surface will depend on which of the men wins the battle of nerves below.

Crimson Tide is one of my favourite 90s action films. For the most part it eschews the dumb shoot-em up definitive good-guy/bad-guy that characterise the genre (which, by the way, I also love). Every time we watch the film my husband and I spend a couple of days bickering about the issues that it raises – if the officers of a nuclear submarine don’t carry out the orders of their political masters then why bother with orders? But if we have don’t have good, thinking people with the willingness to challenge their superiors is before them then our military is doomed.

Much of the success of the film comes from the performances – Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington are brilliant as Captain Ramsey and Lt Commander Hunter respectively. They are more than ably supported by a fine cast including Viggo Mortensen, Matt Craven and James Gandolfini (who plays perhaps the only actual unlikeable character in the entire film – hello typecasting). Hackman is brilliant as the blustering, slightly bullying Captain who inspires intense loyalty amongst his crew. I’m not sure there are any actors working today better than Denzel Washington at being thoughtful, intelligent and believable with a gun (not a euphemism).

There are some cracking scenes – especially the key scene where Hunter refuses to agree with Ramsey’s order to launch nuclear weapons. Director Tony Scott ramps up the tension and Hackman and Washington spark off each other brilliantly.

This is good, but not mindless, fun that captures the paranoid fears of impending nuclear war – and life on board the most claustrophobic place on earth.

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