What more high pressure situation could there be than two men in a submarine arguing over whether or not to launch a nuclear missile? I guess the only thing that would make it more tense would be if they also had to get home in time for a kid’s birthday party. Luckily the birthday party happened at the beginning of the movie, right before they were deployed to take part in “the worst standoff since the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
The two opposing forces, you probly remember, are the captain of the sub, Ramsey (Gene Hackman) and his new executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Hunter (Denzel Washington). Ramsey is brash, set in his ways, notoriously hard to get along with. Hunter is extremely intelligent, highly educated and has some views that are considered liberal for someone in his position, and Ramsey is happy to put him on the spot about these things in front of the men and try to make him uncomfortable about it. Hunter won’t say he opposes dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but that he hesitated to support it makes him a piece of shit to this way of thinking.
The casting of the two leads is the key to the movie. There aren’t many humans who could withstand a browbeating by Gene Hackman while still seeming strong, but Denzel is one of them. He’s usually the one beating the brows, so we know he can take it. And that’s what he does, standing up straight, biting his tongue, sometimes interjecting his viewpoint but being very diplomatic about it until halfway through the movie when he has no choice but to explode into Alpha Denzel to potentially save millions of lives.
The structure of the movie is great. While it’s setting up the tension and differences between these two characters it’s also establishing the glory and the procedure of life on a nuclear submarine: the speech the Captain makes to the troops, the ritual of quietly watching the sunset before the dive (yeah, it’s directed by Tony Scott), the sight of the crew busily running around doing their jobs, sliding down rails, using their jargon. Hans Zimmer’s music is in-your-face triumphant like THE ROCK and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN but as the camera ogles the sexy curves of the submarine there’s a big choir singing the Naval hymn “For Those In Peril On The Sea.” It’s like the Church of the Navy.
There’s a big kitchen fire that happens (of course Scott’s gonna want to shoot some giant flames) and before it’s resolved Ramsey decides to do a drill. It not only causes more conflict between the two (Ramsey thinks that during a fire is the best time for a drill to see if the crew is ready, and keeps pushing buttons to try to get Hunter to admit that he thinks it was negligent) but shows us all the layers of confirmation and safety a command has to to through before it’s authenticated and put into action. It shows us that the Captain and the XO have to agree. So of course when the shit goes down for real they’re not gonna agree.
On the surface the disagreement is over an interpretation of military duty. Ramsey believes the command to launch a missile was authenticated, therefore they have to launch it. Hunter believes that because they received another incomplete message they have to re-establish communications and make sure that wasn’t an order to stand down. Really I think they’re disagreeing over philosophy, because this is what leads them to interpret differently. Ramsey is not a bad person, he’s never demonized, but he definitely has a “let’s get the bastards” worldview, so his biggest fear is that Russians would kill us and we’d fail to kill them back. Hunter, we’ve seen, believes in avoiding war when possible, so his fear is killing the Russians when we didn’t have to. (And then they’d kill us back too.)
On one of the posters it says “On the nuclear submarine USS Alabama, one man has absolute power. And one man will do anything to stop him.” That sounds like it’s a DR. STRANGELOVE type situation where the guy is nuts and out of control, a true villain that must be stopped. That it’s not that is what’s unique about the movie. He’s not a madman. He’s truly following his orders the way he sees them, and believes it’s the right thing to do. But I also think he’s just itchin to do it.
I tell ya, I gotta go with Denzel on this one. He’s right on the facts and he’s right on substance. But I like that they can all fight over this without anybody being bad guys, really. They’re just assholes. They make a strong enough case that Denzel’s buddy Viggo Mortensen, who he’s close enough with that he was at the kid’s birthday party, switches over to the other side. At least temporarily. He’s conflicted.
And the end is so great because – do I really gotta do a SPOILER warning here? it’s probly safe, I’m not gonna bother with one but this is a SPOILER though – Ramsey doesn’t apologize. After being so sure of himself the whole movie now he looks like he’s gonna shit his pants. But he just walks away without saying anything. Yep, I was wrong. Millions of people almost died because I was wrong. Maybe all the people would’ve died. Whoops. My bad. Well, no harm no foul.
Since Scott’s death alot of people have been talking about his love for things-that-don’t-make-sense-but-look-cool. One thing that may fit into that category is the way he lights people in this submarine. There are people looking at computer screens that somehow project text onto their faces. There are people lit entirely in red standing in front of entirely blue backgrounds. In one very symbolic scene Viggo has red projected on one side of his face, blue on the other, a portion in the middle overlapping and looking greenish. At that point he’s torn between supporting the Captain (who often wears a red cap) or the XO (sometimes wears blue). DO YOU SEE WHAT I’M SAYING TO YOU? THE MAN IS CAUGHT BETWEEN TWO COLORS.
I was planning to review this a couple weeks ago when I was doing the minor Tarantino works. He’s uncredited, but he script-doctored some of the dialogue, and it shows. There are obvious pop culture ones: two officers get in a fight over which artist had the definitive version of The Silver Surfer (is this also a reference to BREATHLESS?), Hunter somehow inspires the guy fixing the radio by talking to him about Star Trek. I believe he also added Ramsey having a little dog (who, by the way, wags his tail happily when everything is okay – he was on Hunter’s side) and their discussion of different breeds of horses. I imagine he also wrote Ramsey’s speech where he describes their mission as “We have to go out there and give the man a moment of pause.”
Apparently when Tarantino visited the set Denzel confronted him about racial slurs in his movies. It must’ve been scary to get chew out by Malcolm X, but it didn’t stop him from writing JACKIE BROWN. The Premiere article this story comes from doesn’t seem to be online anywhere, but I did find more recent quotes from GQ where he says “I buried that hatchet. I sought him out ten years ago. I told him, ‘Look, I apologize.’” That’s kinda weird that he’d have to apologize. RESERVOIR DOGS, TRUE ROMANCE and PULP FICTION all had white characters who weren’t even the villains casually dropping racial slurs. In PULP FICTION it was Tarantino himself saying it. So it’s not like his point was completely crazy. Maybe he really lit into him.
To answer my original question I guess there would’ve been even more pressure if there were a bunch of bees loose on the sub. Because it would be hard to hide from bees down there. But back then the cgi for swarms wasn’t as good so that’s probly why they didn’t do it and just had to rely on the pressure of the nuclear conflict.
I liked this one when I first saw it, and it completely held up all these years later. In fact I think it’s a little better than I remembered. Personally I rank this as Tony Scott’s second best.