In a fictional post-cold war setting, a Chechen rebel force has gained access to nuclear weapons and is threatening to take over the USSR. Radchenko (Daniel Von Bargen) has armed himself and his army of about 60,000 soldiers with nuclear missiles and three Akula submarines to protect the coast of Vladivostok in Russia. The American government dispatches the USS Alabama to patrol and if need be, intervene in the radical group’s activities.
Meanwhile deep below the ocean’s surface in the USS Alabama, Captain Jack Ramsey (Gene Hackman) struggles as a hard fast military man who blindly follows orders no matter what the cost. Enter young, upstart Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington) who inevitably butts heads with the curmudgeonly Captain, willing to risk defying orders in the face of saving millions of lives. The relationship comes to a head when Ramsey is forced into the decision of launching missiles, while Hunter himself is forced into directly disobeying his superior’s orders to avoid certain disaster. The struggle for power continues throughout as Hunter and the crew detain Ramsey when it is determined that he is acting irrationally.
What follows is a classic war movie, cinematically and ideologically ahead of its time. At its heart it is tropey and systematic but it well written dialogue and not surprisingly, wonderfully acted scenes, especially the power faceoffs between Ramsey and Hunter. Though it takes place in a nuclear submarine, it is never too claustrophobic, even during the scene of an onboard fire that throws the crew into chaos. The threat of Nuclear war is always perceived to be real but at the core of the film is the clash between new and old, college educated and military raised, and what to do when a decision circumvents the traditional chain of command in the Navy.
Crimson Tide is a classic naval film, in the vein of Das Boot and the Hunt for Red October, with phenomenal acting performances and a stellar cast. The action is constant enough to juxtapose the fact that deep down this film has character and heart, not just another blow em up war story with a happy ending. The true conflict lies in the psychology of the soldier and how difficult it is to disobey orders. Ramsey and Hunter come from two different schools of training, yet each of them succumbs to the same internal dilemma. There is a reason why Crimson Tide is still heralded decades later. It is raw, gritty, and unafraid to delve into the mental nature of a soldier’s decision making process. It shows that they are human and not infallible despite their rank and it leaves the audience with a discussion about right and wrong, long after the film has ended.