Reconsidering a modestly succesful thrillride as a military movie masterwork

Tony Scott may not have had the same kind of critically acclaimed and award winning career as his older brother Ridley, but his body of work has nonetheless had an indelible and undeniable influence on cinema, his potent formula of bombastic action, high melodrama, and emotional sincerity shaping how modern blockbusters are crafted and enjoyed by movie lovers the world over. Many would consider his 1986 mega hit Top Gun to be his masterpiece, a once in a lifetime creation fueled by a rising superstar and Cold War jingoistic fervor in their respective primes. However, I believe that Tony Scott’s other Naval war film released in 1995 might actually be his best and most cohesive work.

Crimson Tide shares many common ingredients with Top Gun that work in a way that I don’t think has been truly appreciated by the world at large. It has stellar performances by veteran screen legends and breakout contemporary superstars alike along with a firm grasp on the enthralling spell of military might projected onto film. However, it also has a more mature and a fairly complex understanding of its time and place in world history, reflecting the doubts and insecurities of a nuclear superpower without a mutually assured rival and a generation of warfighters trying to understand their place and importance in a rapidly advancing and changing global community.

Denzel Washington stars as Lieutenant Commander Hunter, assigned as the new Executive Officer to the Nuclear Submarine USS Alabama as a highly volatile international incident in Russia puts the United States Navy on high alert in a situation not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Gene Hackman stars as Captain Ramsey, a battle hardened veteran in charge of the Alabama who is granted the operational authority to conduct a nuclear strike upon confirmation of imminent threat. The crew faces the perils of submerged warfare, but when their lines of communication are severed during the critical strike countdown, the scholarly young Hunter and hard charging Ramsey clash. The men of the USS Alabama risk pushing the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation, unsure if they should hold fire for confirmation or launch a preemptive strike that would save their nation.

Crimson Tide deftly balances a heightened reality with gritty military realism, the perfect tone for this exploration of ethics and morality to play out in a worst case scenario. While there are only a few scenes of actual combat, the film moves at a break neck pace and the tension ramps up exponentially with each scene as the threat of mutiny spreads like poison and as the dread of nuclear holocaust steadily suffocates the souls of the crew. It is a dead serious military-political thriller that still manages to excite and entertain like a blockbuster roller coaster ride.

There’s lots of great things to say about the incredible ensemble of performances, the masterful direction, the impressive craft of the underwater action set pieces, and the sharpness of the script, too much perhaps for this humble overview to parse through in fine detail. Moreover, even with my decade of experience in the Army, I still have little insight into the veracity of the technical and tactical aspects of submarine warfare as presented in the film. To the film’s credit, it firmly establishes its rules and commits to them so that the audience is never lost in or concerned about technical minutiae. That said, what stands out most to me about the film upon re-watch with the hindsight of my service is how it presents the nuances of the chain of command through perhaps the most stressful and high stakes military scenario that service members could ever be presented with.

Hunter plays a dangerous game, fostering alliances and depending on the provisions detailed in Navy regulations to do what’s right. Ramsey similarly corrals his defenders, certain of his judgement, intuition, and the absolute authority that would entrust him with the fate of the world and defense of the nation in the first place. The film shows the dangers of marginalizing your subordinates and the virtues of trusting and empowering them to achieve success. On the other hand, while the captain’s hard line methods are presented as overbearing, the movie still makes the case for why unwavering adherence to the chain of command is vital to the mission. In the end, Hunter is proven to be right and nuclear annihilation is averted, but the epilogue within a Navy tribunal openly recognizes the flaws of such a system in which so many lives hang in the balance. In the end, there is no easy answer, and although patience and knowledge win the day, there is still respect given to the necessity for hard choices and sacrifice in the name of duty.

I hope that Crimson Tide undergoes a reassessment and reappraisal by film fans. Enough time has passed to prove that beyond being a highly entertaining thriller, it is an important philosophical discourse on conduct within a unit faced with overwhelming adversity. Young service members are often enamored by rousing propaganda films (like Top Gun), but Crimson Tide has many lessons to offer that are relevant to this day.