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Smart People Talking: The 25th Anniversary of "The Hunt For Red October"

“The Hunt For Red October,” which came out 25 years ago this week, was the culmination of an extraordinary run by director John McTiernan, beginning with “Predator” and “Die Hard”—one very rarely matched in popular cinema. The trajectory from beginning to end is interesting as well: “Predator” seems at first glance to be serving the gods of baroque violence, being as it is an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie with all the glistening biceps and visceral spray one infers from his presence. And, while it  does deliver on that count, it is also populated by characters who feel as though they have lived full lives, animated by strong (and not just in the muscular sense) performances. Its final movement is almost a critical essay on the action film, quietly posing the question “if Arnold has to work this hard to kill the bad guy, is this not one of the definitive villains of the genre?” The film as a whole has a rich philosophical bent ripe for interrogation, coming very close to holding the alien hunter in higher moral regard than Arnold, while simultaneously being a thing equally enjoyable if only watched for violence.

McTiernan then follows with “Die Hard,” another canvas on which men paint with each other's blood, but it is one with far greater and more explicit attention paid to dramatic nuance. Its hero John McClane is vulnerable—to the point of being barefoot for nearly the entire film—and reliant almost exclusively on his wits to survive. And when he does use his skills at violence, it's not in a controlled, “cool” way. He is heard, although half-buried in the sound mix, to tell a foe “I'm gonna fuckin' cook you...and fucking eat you” while punching him. The villain Hans Gruber, again one of the greatest the cinema has known, is played by Alan Rickman—sleek, fashionable, erudite, only undone by his inability to plan for someone as stubbornly incorruptible and impossible to intimidate as McClane.

“The Hunt For Red October," adapted by Larry Ferguson from Tom Clancy's novel, pulls even further back from overt violence, while losing none of the dramatic tension of its predecessors. In fact, the entire force of the narrative is drawn from smart people figuring stuff out. 

Both leads are men of letters: CIA analyst Jack Ryan is played by Alec Baldwin as an amiable, wildly intelligent and erudite nerd, possessed of a very relatable “do the thing while quaking in terror and talking to yourself” type of bravery. His fear of flying, PTSD-derived rather than phobic, bookends the movie. The opening flight sees him babbling nervously about turbulence to a stewardess who suggests he get some sleep. After he prevents World War III—not a spoiler, the whole point of the movie is in how he does so—he flies home sound asleep, content in the knowledge that a little turbulence is nothing compared to talking guys who really want to blow up Russians into not blowing up Russians, dangling from helicopters in the North Atlantic and chasing rogue saboteurs around nuclear submarines with guns (the latter two sequences, however brief, are nonetheless impactful experiences).

The Soviet submarine captain who sets the film's story in motion, Marko Ramius, is closer to the traditional model of the man of action. He is, after all, a naval officer. But it's significant in multiple ways that his nickname within the Soviet Navy is “The Vilnius Schoolmaster.” It indicates the fact that, as a Lithuanian, he is regarded as an Other rather than as a full-fledged Russian, a detachment that forms part of the basis for Ryan's deduction that he may be trying to defect. The phrasing of “schoolmaster” has a dual edge, one being that Ramius literally taught every submariner in the Soviet fleet everything they know, and the other being that he keeps a copy of the “Bhagavad Gita” in his cabin, cites Cortez and Columbus (although the quote attributed to Columbus was written for the film), and in a humorous revelation upon their meeting, critiques Ryan's book on fellow naval maverick William Halsey: “Your conclusions were all wrong, Ryan. Halsey acted stupidly.”

If Ryan's conclusions about Halsey were wrong, they're the only things he gets wrong in the whole movie. The way in which he reverse-engineers Ramius' plot to steal the submarine and defect is as edge-of-the-seat thrilling as any agglomeration of chase-and-battle scenes could be, to say nothing of the clarity of thought necessary to punch through the fearful, knee-jerk assumption all the Joint Chiefs of Staff make that Ramius plans to nuke the U.S. east coast. Ryan listens, a very important and oft-overlooked aspect of being a smart person, when an admiral (Fred Dalton Thompson; “The Hunt For Red October” is packed with terrific character actors) reminds him “Russians don't take a dump, son, without a plan,” leading Ryan to realize that Ramius must have already figured out how he was going to get his crew, who were not in on the defection plan, off the submarine, at which point the solution presents itself almost immediately.

Even the moment of desperation in which Ryan relies on luck to convince the American sub captain (Scott Glenn) on Red October's trail not to blow it out of the water, the persuasion he fabricates is ingeniously built: “Has he made any Crazy Ivans [sudden turns to sniff out pursuers]?” “What difference does that make?” “Because his next one will be to starboard.” “Why, because his last was to port?” “No, because he always goes to starboard in the bottom half of the hour.” That kind of mathematical precision in creating a piece of luck when he desperately needs it is thrilling to behold.

This leads neatly to a discussion of another crucial element of the film's thrilling intellectual derring-do, the sonar operator Jones, essayed spectacularly by Courtney B. Vance. Vance plays his first scene as though curled up by a fire with a glass of brandy and a violin concerto, taking a disarming amount of pleasure at simply playing the character. He is jolted from this reverie by the appearance and subsequent disappearance of a new, unrecorded Soviet submarine. Using his almost eerily cultivated sense of hearing (honed on classical music), Jones obsessively listens to tape and eventually detects the audio signature of Red October's nearly-silent propulsion system (the means by which it is to reach America and nuke it before anyone is the wiser), and deduces its course. The scene where Jones explains all this to his captain is utterly riveting, and delightful to behold, and the only weapons used are a good pair of headphones, a tape recorder, a nautical chart, and a magic marker. (It concludes with Vance, having incrementally increased the tension throughout the scene via line readings, eliciting what appears to be an involuntary exhalation from Glenn at the “Eureka!” moment.)

Ramius has already composed his plot and written out the score before the movie starts, but the nature and theatricality of his on-screen thinking takes a different form. It's a marvelous bit of work on Sean Connery's part, in which he must be both actor and movie star. He uses his established persona to manifest Ramius' exalted standing within the military, and very precise acting through the most minute of gestures to keep up an exhausting balancing act for the officers and crew of the Red October. He has to constantly reassure his co-conspirators that he knows what he's doing, while dropping hints to the crew that he's crazier than he is—if announcing his plan to nuke the eastern seaboard of the U.S. didn't do the trick—subtly enough that it doesn't look deliberate.

The one scene in which he truly lets his guard down is the one where his first officer, Borodin (Sam Neill), describes his beautifully utopian plan to live in Montana, and drive around the country in his RV, wintering in Arizona, capped off with the joke/wistful acknowledgement of the fantastical nature of this vision, “Perhaps I will need two wives.” Ramius returns the joke (“Oh, at least!”), but when Borodin asks him what he looks forward to, Ramius can only exhale a bleak tale of battle fatigue, a realization long in the coming that a life spent at war is a life knowing only death, that his plan to defect was not so much a calculated political gesture as the product of a long life spent in the dark in which, after much careful and painful consideration, it became clear this was the only way to ever see the sun.

“The Hunt For Red October” is a marvel of pop filmmaking, one in which one of Hollywood's hottest action directors made an action movie based around thinking, and made it not only the equal to but a progression from his previous two hits (now classics). The quarter century since its release has not diminished its delights in the slightest, and it remains one of the most compulsively re-watchable movies of its, or any other, era. Not bad for a film that consists almost solely of smart people talking.

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