REVIEW – ‘Crimson Tide’

This submarine thriller is one of the best entries from the late Tony Scott!

Review by J.T. Johnson

ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE: May 12, 1995
DIRECTOR: Tony Scott
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Dariusz Wolski
WRITER: Michael Schiffer
MUSIC: Hans Zimmer

“Crimson Tide” was the first film that would see director Tony Scott working together with Denzel Washington along with fellow heavy-hitter Gene Hackman. The movie also contains early roles for future “Sopranos” star James Gandolfini and “Lord of the Rings” star Viggo Mortensen.

While writing credit ultimately went to Michael Schiffer, the script still needed a touch-up in the dialogue department. This is where director Quentin Tarantino came in and did an uncredited touch-up. Any point in the film where officers make a pop culture reference, the audience can rest assured that the scene was rewritten by Tarantino.

The film’s main focus, though, begins with a fictional civil war breaking out in an unstable Russia. The U.S. government sends in their nuclear submarines when it becomes apparent that Vladimir Radchenko (Daniel von Bargen), a Russian ultranationalist leading the rebellion, has taken control of Russian missiles and is threatening to use them against the United States. The submarine leading a preemptive strike against Vladimir is the USS Alabama.

The sub is commanded by Captain Frank Ramsey (Hackman). Due to his previous Executive Officer’s (XO) health problems, he chooses Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter (Washington) as his new XO. From the start, the two begin to butt heads due to their different commanding styles. Ramsey is one of the last commanders left who has seen combat and performs by the seat of his pants. Hunter, on the other hand, has no combat experience but maintains that all the facts need to be known before using nuclear missiles.

This conflict is what ultimately propels the entire movie. It would have been easy for the writers to side with either the Captain or the XO, but here they do something even more brilliant. They show both the pros and cons to each officer’s command methods. At times, it is easy to side with Hunter while at others the audience might find themselves siding with Frank. The fact that the crew of the Alabama is also at odds adds another level of tension into the mix.

Scott had already proven himself as an able action director with “Top Gun”, another film produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer. This time, though, Scott did not have the assistance of the U.S. Navy due to their concerns over the script’s subject matter. Still, the director creates some of the best submarine sequences ever put to film including a harrowing battle between the Alabama and a Russian sub controlled by Radchenko’s men.

One interesting shot in the film shows the Alabama performing a dive. The reason that it is interesting is the fact that Scott took a helicopter out and shot unauthorized footage of the real vessel. When the ship ordered Scott to stop shooting, the ship dived and Scott got the shot he wanted in the first place. With this film, Scott was on top of his game.

Of course, the star power of Washington and Hackman is also central to the film. The two actors have a chemistry that cannot be denied once viewed by the audience. The two actors also have to perform a balancing act. Hackman’s performance is one of his best. He plays Ramsey as a man who has been at sea for a very long time and demands the loyalty of his men. While some viewers might be against him, they cannot deny the respect that he commands while it is that same respect that makes the other audience members join him.

Washington plays Hunter as a character that, while he may not have any real experience beyond his study of war history, the viewer can relate to him because of his desire to avert nuclear war. The film ends with a message saying that as of January 1996, primary authority to fire nuclear weapons now rest in the hands of the President instead of the commanders. This film gives the best scenario for why that procedure was changed in the first place.

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