After WWII, war movies remained popular, and a veritable "sub"genre evolved featuring the men who served aboard submarines. Whether it was Robert Mitchum manning the periscope in "The Enemy Below," Glenn Ford in "Torpedo Run," Clark Gable in "Run Silent, Run Deep," James Garner in "Up Periscope," or Cary Grant in "Destination Tokyo," the films all had one thing in common: in such close quarters and with such a small and restricted space, the emphasis was on character and psychological tension. That's something even action film impresario Jerry Bruckheimer couldn't change, as we see in "Crimson Tide" (1995)--a nuclear nail-biter which followed in the wake of another submarine thriller, "The Hunt for Red October" (1990).
This time it's Gene Hackman giving the orders to go to periscope depth . . . and Denzel Washington. Hackman and Washington turn in typically solid performances as an old-school, battle-hardened captain and his executive officer, a first-time combat sailor who has an extreme difference of opinion on the course of action to take when their order to launch missiles at Russia is only half-confirmed. As far as they both know, a rogue Russian general who's seized control of a nuclear base will have figured out the launch code within the hour and could be airmailing a package to the U.S. Then again, the rebels may have been contained, and their broken radio just might not have picked it up. And what's up with that other sub in the area? The bottom line, and the source of conflict is, if they launch a pre-emptive strike and the rebels have surrendered, will the first-strike start WWIII? And if they don't launch, will the rogue Russian annihilate major cities in the U.S.? It's not an easy call, and we wonder all along the way who the men will side with. It makes for a tense time in the old tin-can, and "Crimson Tide" is solidly in the claustrophobic tradition of those submarine dramas that came before it, including perhaps the most celebrated of them all, the German-made "Das Boot."
The action takes place aboard the nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed USS Alabama, whose athletic team nickname is the Crimson Tide--hence the title. In a further 'Bama tribute, Captain Frank Ramsey (Hackman) has a Jack Russell terrier that he takes with him everywhere, even aboard the submarine. The dog's name? Bear, an obvious allusion to legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant.
"Sopranos" fans will enjoy seeing a slimmed-down James Gandolfini as one of the crew, along with Viggo Mortensen ("Eastern Promises") and TV's Rick Schroder ("Silver Spoons"). And while some of the sub gadgets and gizmos are just that, director Tony Scott ("Top Gun") brought onboard a technical advisor who served on the real USS Alabama to keep things from getting too Hollywood.
The writing is sharp enough to create a convincing world, with some of the more memorable lines coming from the Captain ("We're here to preserve democracy, not to practice it") and his exec ("In my humble opinion, in the nuclear world, the true enemy is war itself"). To the screenwriters credit, and to the credit of the performers, the two main characters are portrayed with enough complexity to where it's easy to feel sympathy for both men. The door is also left open just enough to where the one you think is off his nut might actually be the one whose gut feeling is right. Or not.
Scott apparently liked working with Hackman and Washington, because he teamed up with Hackman again in "Enemy of the State" (1998) and with Washington in "Man on Fire" (2004) and "Déjà vu" (2006).
While many dramas like this might have opted to include cutaways to show the Russian general, U.S. stateside navy brass, or TV broadcasts to heighten our sense of a worsening conflict, Bruckheimer thankfully had the good sense to trust his writers and director and keep the focus on the submarine crew. They don't know what's going on beyond the walls of their submerged ship, and neither do we. The result is a solid film in the tradition of "Fail-Safe" and other Cold War classics, which all but invites viewers to turn out the lights and be afraid. Be very afraid.
"Crimson Tide" is presented in 1080p High Definition (aspect ration 2.40:1), and except for some halos and fringing in some instances and some shooting blue horizontal lines in others, the picture is very sharp, with pleasingly saturated colors and decent black levels.
The audio, however, is practically flawless. The English PCM 5.1 (uncompressed 48kHz/16-bit) audio is superb, with plenty of rear-speaker action in very subtle ways, so that we hear every creak of the ship as it sinks to near-crush depth and feel the sailors' pain. The bass is powerful without vibrating too much, while the balance between the FX and dialogue is very good.
Okay, what's the deal? For a film like this, I would have expected all kinds of extras. Instead, there's just "The Making of Crimson Tide," which is a pretty standard affair that integrates cast and crew interviews with clips. The whole thing feels suspiciously like a promo piece, because there's an awful lot of plot summary. The only other extras are a handful of deleted scenes that are hardly worth watching, and "On the Set of 'Crimson Tide,'" which isn't bad, but how much detail can you get in 10 minutes?
"Das Boot" is still the reigning champ of submarine films, but "Crimson Tide" is a respectable entry in the "sub" genre, largely due to Hackman and Washington.