In the first act of Crimson Tide, a couple of sailors are having a discussion about characters in all-time great submarine movies like Run Silent, Run Deep and The Enemy Below. Tony Scott‘s 1995 thriller is now among these submarine classics, and yet it’s an incredibly different kind of a sub movie. Most submarine movies are about the naval warfare. They play with navigation, timing, and precision to fight off an enemy. But Crimson Tide doesn’t really have an enemy. There’s an external force—Russian nationalists who are threatening to steal nuclear missile launch codes—but the movie is not about fighting the Russians. We don’t even meet any Russian sailors. For Crimson Tide, the real enemy, especially in the nuclear age, is war itself and the inevitable fog of war that could lead to disastrous consequences.
For those who need a brief refresher on the plot, some Soviet nationalists are staging a coup and threatening to steal the nuclear launch codes, which puts the planet on the brink of World War III. The crew of the U.S.S. Alabama is tasked with heading into enemy waters so they can launch nukes first if necessary. The Alabama is captained by Ramsey (Gene Hackman), an ornery war dog who is one of the few captains to have ever seen battle and who, despite his curt and arrogant attitude, commands the respect of the men who have served under him. His Executive Officer (i.e. the second-in-command) is Hunter (Denzel Washington), a Harvard-educated intellectual who has never worked with Ramsey before, but at first seems to have the old man’s respect. After a couple of tumultuous starts where the men are feeling each other out and it’s clear that they have different attitudes towards command, the sub receives an Emergency Action Message (EAM) telling them to ready the nukes for launch. However, during battle, another EAM is received, but the message is cut off. Ramsey believes the original message takes precedence and wants to proceed with the launch. Hunter believes they need to fix the radio and get confirmation in order to get the full EAM. This leads to a tense stand off where Ramsey and Hunter jockey for control of the ship and, by proxy, the fate of the world.
For such a tense film, Crimson Tide is not in a hurry to get to its central conflict. It takes about halfway through the runtime to get to the main schism, but Scott and screenwriter Michael Schiffer know that they have to lay the groundwork of the main personalities that will fracture and fray when the shit hits the fan. One of the great assets of the submarine movie is patience. Your characters have nowhere to go and they can’t get there very fast, so it’s all about building that internal tension, but whereas in other sub movies that tension comes from other submarines, for Crimson Tide, it’s about the clashing personalities. And yet even here, Scott, Schiffer, Hackman, and Washington are careful not to go too broad. Ramsey isn’t a madman, but he’s part of the old guard and has a different belief system than Hunter. Their conflict is generational, although the movie also hints at a racial divide in the climax as the two discuss the color of Lipizzaner stallions.
And yet the film cleverly positions the characters on even ground when it comes to the larger protocols at play. Ramsey is right that a cut-off order is no order at all and is superseded by a prior order. And yet when the stakes are nothing less than nuclear war, Hunter is right that caution is the better approach and they need confirmation, especially when there are other ships who can carry out the same order if need be. All of this tension is heightened once the radio is severed because no new information can penetrate the submarine. They’re left with ambiguous orders and differing personalities, and all that’s left is the men and their choices. It’s all internal factors, and the submarine setting is brilliant for that. Scott uses the claustrophobia of the sub to his advantage to highlight how these men are trapped here between Ramsey and Hunter and two equally valid points of view. Is it more important to follow the chain of command no matter where it leads, or is it more important to exercise independent thought given the potential for cataclysmic outcomes?
As Hunter notes, “in the nuclear world, the true enemy is war itself,” but Ramsey can’t see the world that way. It’s his job to follow orders, and yet there are times when the rules are inconvenient, like acknowledging that he and Hunter have to agree to launch. The film verges on rendering Ramsey simplistic and authoritarian, but he simply represents old guard military thinking and as an individual, he’s not used to being contradicted. It’s a great reveal of how a character sees himself (he tells Hunter he doesn’t want kiss-asses) and who he actually is (someone who demands submission to his authority). Hunter is the “hero” because he doesn’t want nuclear war and wants more information before launch, but that doesn’t automatically make him the good guy. What’s terrifying at the core of Crimson Tide is that the fate of the world could rest on whether or not two people get along.
Other submarine movies see external threats. The submarine is a setting that’s always in danger, but the boat must be saved and protected at all costs in order to fulfill its mission. The narrow confines allow for a great equalizer, which is how films like The Enemy Below and Das Boot allow for sympathy with our enemies. In a way, all characters are in the same boat, and yet they’re forced to fight each other. Crimson Tide simply does away with the other boat and sees that there’s enough potential in the conflict between personalities when you’re cut off from the rest of the world.