There's an early scene in "Crimson Tide" when the characters are playing a trivia game, remembering the stars of early submarine movies like "Run Silent, Run Deep." It's clever, showing how the crew members of the U.S. nuclear submarine Alabama have formed many of their images of the silent service at the movies.
It's also daring: This movie is inviting comparison with the classics, and although it doesn't mention "Das Boot" or "The Hunt for Red October," it could have: This movie is in the same skillful tradition.
The tradition includes a strong commander, and the Alabama possesses a legend: Capt. Ramsey (Gene Hackman), who trained under the legendary Adm. Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear submarine, and is now nearing the end of his active duty. Ramsey, known for chewing up subordinates, is also famous for his little dog, a Jack Russell terrier that is allowed to lift its little leg wherever it pleases.
As the movie opens, the Alabama gets a new second in command: Lt. Cmdr. Hunter (Denzel Washington). In an early interview with Ramsey, the old-timer strikes a vaguely sinister note; Hackman is a master at seeming genial and friendly while masking deeper, darker thoughts. The sub sets out to sea, and during a discussion around the dinner table, Hunter makes the mistake of telling Ramsey, "In my humble opinion, in the nuclear world the true enemy is war itself." These words will haunt him. Ramsey tests the younger man,and when a fire breaks out in the submarine's galley, the captain chooses that moment to order an onboard drill. Hunter questions the decision, saying he would have attended to the fire first, before calling a drill. Ramsey says he saw the fire as an opportunity to test the ability of his men to function under chaotic conditions.
And, he adds, while the junior officer is free to disagree, he should never do so in front of the enlisted men: "We're here to preserve democracy, not to practice it." A coded message is received. Russian rebel troops have seized control of nuclear missile silos, and the Alabama is placed on full war alert. Its job, if it receives a verified command message, will be to fire its nuclear missiles at the land-based targets in a preemptive strike. Meanwhile, in an exchange of missiles with an enemy sub, the Alabama's radio apparatus is temporarily disabled, but not before a confirmed message has been received that orders the sub to ready its missiles for firing.
Now deep silence reigns beneath the ocean. The sub, cut off from its chain of command, may be the only deterrent to a Russian nuclear attack. Should the captain seize the initiative and order a launch? He can do that only if his second-in-command agrees, and Hunter doesn't. That's the basic set-up in "Crimson Tide," an uncommonly intelligent dramatization about the choices, dangers and duties of nuclear warfare.
The movie has the usual trappings of submarine adventure pictures: emergency flooding, near-hits, the danger of sinking below a safe depth. Director Tony Scott ("Top Gun") handles these scenes with skill, and yet they're not at the heart of Michael Schiffer's screenplay. Instead, the movie develops along ideological lines, as Ramsey and Hunter - both absolutely convinced they're right - attempt to gain control of the submarine. Is the captain guilty of a procedural violation, or is his second in command guilty of mutiny? Oddly enough, "Crimson Tide" develops into an actors' picture, not just an action movie. There are a lot of special effects, high-tech gadgets and violent standoffs, yes, but the movie is really a battle between two wills. Hackman and Washington are well-matched, and although my sympathies were with the Washington character (faced with the prospect of a billion deaths, it is best to err on the side of caution), I could understand the logic of the senior officer. Hackman's Ramsey is not a warmonger or a mad dog, but an officer so obsessed with following orders that even an incomplete one has a message, just for him.
In a large supporting cast, George Dzundza stands out as Cob, the officer who must side with Hunter or Ramsey, and who places proper procedure higher than his opinion of either man's position.
His best scene comes as he monitors a depth gauge that shows the Alabama sinking to hull-crushing pressures. As it appears inevitable that the sub will be destroyed, he makes an interesting actor's choice: Instead of allowing his voice to grow tense or exciting, he flattens it into a disinterested monotone of resignation. That works even better to underline the tension.
What's unique about "Crimson Tide" is that it doesn't offer clear-cut choices between good and evil. Hackman may be violating procedures, but perhaps he has good reasons. Washington, fearing to unleash war, may leave his country unprotected.
Even the ending is intriguingly even-handed. This is the rare kind of war movie that not only thrills people while they're watching it, but invites them to leave the theater actually discussing the issues.