DIRECTOR: Tony Scott
May Contain Spoilers!
Both a simple and complex narrative drives this post Cold War thriller into new waters. Going where many submarine war movies had traveled before, Crimson Tide tackles the complex moral determinations of War and the methods used to fight them. With old school skipper, Gene Hackman in command of a U.S. Nuclear submarine during a fictional nuclear crisis in 1995, in which an ex-soviet nuclear base had been seized by rebels with the intent to launch on the West, he is joined by a new Executive Officer (Denzel Washington) whose sensibilities are much more modern.
Whilst Hackman is willing to follow his orders in hand, even if they lead to Armageddon, Washington is more concerned with making the right decision. This culture clash comes to a head when the sub is attacked as they are given a confirmed Emergency Action Message to launch on Russia, but as the clock is ticking, another message is partial received but is interrupted, prompting Washington to question the validity of their existing orders.
Hackman, playing it by the book, is prepared to fire on the basis of his existing orders whilst Washington’s conscience forces him to try by all means to retrieve the complete second message. This leads to mutiny and an hour of questions as to which man is correct. Both have solid arguments and if either of them are wrong then billions could die in the resulting conflict but if the order is rescinded, the war is over before it starts.
This is a frightening concept, that when it comes down to it a launch order can be given to sub and if the areal breaks then there’s no way to rescind the order. And it’s probably true. But there’s more going on here that just this moral dilemma. There’s a thesis on war and certainly nuclear war as we have an old school Cold War captain squaring off against a modern thinking theologian and asking whether or not there any place in the military for thinking or morality. Orders need to be followed to do the unthinkable but where does that end. Is there a thesis here on the Nazi defence of “Just following orders?”
Crimson Tide is also a detailed depiction of life on a Nuclear sub, fictional but rooted in fact. But it’s this attention to detail which makes these sub and silos feel more than just a dot on a wall map of the globe in a war room, a mere asset drifting around the Atlantic. That every sub has to evade the enemy, do battle and then launch their deadly attack shows the complexity and scale of the operation and that there really isn’t just a man in the Oval Office with a red button.
Tony Scott’s direction is nothing short of brilliant, creating real sense of life onboard a sub, certainly at a time of growing tensions, making the mutiny feel plausible and the characters are intelligent and capable of committing these acts. This isn’t a black and white tale, as both men are prepared to launch on the enemy but one will do so blindly following orders and the order cannot find the same comfort in doing so, requiring a solid moral foundation for his actions, even in the face of mass murder.
This is also a showcase for Hans Zimmer’s early work, the score which help make him one of the great composers of our generation. Clips from this score would play in trailers for the next few years and there’s little doubt that the music helps to create the films looks and tone. All in all, Crimson Tide, a pretty straight forward 90’s blockbuster has to me anyway, become a real classic, one of the best Cold War, styled at least, movies of the genre. Posing real, ethical and theological questions about warfare in general, Crimson Tide is War film which actually has it all in one neat package.