VOD film review: Crimson Tide
Complex moral debate8
James R | On 10, Oct 2021
Director: Tony Scott
Cast: Gene Hackman, Denzel Washington
Where to watch Crimson Tide online in the UK: Disney+ UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
“In the nuclear world, the true enemy is war itself.” Those are the words of Lieutenant Commander Hunter (Denzel Washington) early on in Crimson Tide, Ridley Scott’s rip-roaring submarine thriller. But while Hunter’s philosophical meditation might sound a bit dry and serious, the film’s excitement comes from seeing that clear moral stance clash with one of zealous combat. What begins with reasoned, thoughtful discussion gradually descends into shorter and shorter outbursts and barely disguised conflict – and that’s before the submarine’s nuclear warheads even get launched.
To launch or not to launch is the question, and it soon becomes clear that Hunter fundamentally disagrees with Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman). We join them on the USS Alabama, which is under Ramsey’s command and is high-tailing it to thwart a potential enemy force that’s gained control of a missile base. But mid-operation, they lose their communication system, cutting off their orders halfway through – is this fragment of a message a command to strike or a warning to stand down?
For Ramsey, they can’t risk any chance of someone launching a nuclear strike against the USA. For Hunter, starting World War Three without being sure there’s a threat in the first place is unthinkable. With nuclear protocol dictating that missiles can only be launched if the two officers agree, the stage is set for a back-and-forth string of undermining, overreaching and all-out mutiny.
It’s a fiendishly simple premise, one that takes the submarine sub-genre away from Red October waters but still finds a post-Cold War America navigating waters of distrust and its own rules of engagement. Ramsey hails from the old school of combat, while Hunter is of the new era of thinking first, blowing things up later. They’re both right and wrong, and screenwriter Michael Schiller sharply draws lines of no return all over the ship, as the characters repeatedly find new ways to cross them. It’s no spoiler to say that both of them get their chance to take charge of the vessel, or that the pair also have a grudging respect for each other’s conviction – but that doesn’t mean they’re not prepared to go to extreme lengths to come out on top.
The script balances the deceptively varied range of scenarios with the constant of its characters’ personalities, and he develops them to be more than just symbols of two opposing ethical standpoints. That’s partly thanks to the cast, with Gene Hackman on bullish, loathsome form as the bullying senior officer, not above racial slurs as he snickers and sneers from a position of authority with just enough cruelty to make him unsuitable for it. He’s countered superbly by Denzel Washington, who blends his everyman, idealist charisma with a cool, stoic resilience, capable of staying calm even when he’s the odd one out in the room. (Watch out, too, for stellar work from a young Virgo Mortensen, James Gandolfini and Steve Zahn.)
These are all the ingredients director Tony Scott needs to ramp up the tension to almost absurd heights, his kinetic camerawork reinforcing the claustrophobic nature of the story’s confined setting. Working seamlessly with DoP Dariusz Wolski, the result is a rapid-fire montage of rooms and people swimming in red, with the close-ups growing more intense the more heated the stand-off becomes. But what really sticks with you is the sound design, which keeps every scene ticking over with pings and bleeps that remind us this isn’t a training exercise, that enemy ships are lurking out their in the ocean, and that things can only get more pressurised. Several decades on, it’s still a nail-biting ride.
Crimson Tide is available on Disney+ UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.