Made in 1995, Crimson Tide is a Cold War film set in the post Cold War era. To re-establish the mutually assured destruction scenario of that era, the plot involves Russian nationalists taking over a missile base and threatening the USA with nuclear attack.
This unnecessarily convoluted plot could have been solved by just setting it ten years earlier. Perhaps the film makers didn’t want to look like they were clinging on to the past for dramatic purposes, but this is how it ends up looking anyway. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if this film was actually written before the collapse of the Soviet Union and updated for the 1990s.
Aboard the ship, Gene Hackman reprises his role as grumpy old man from all his films to play the hot headed, somewhat overzealous military veteran Captain Ramsay, with Denzel Washington as his far calmer, Harvard-educated deputy Commander Hunter. This dynamic is pretty much the same as K-19, but without the awful Russian accents.
When they get the order to launch a nuclear strike, they’re ready to go when a message comes through from command. Their communications go down before they can hear the end of the message, leaving Ramsay set on executing the strike, while Hunter tries to re-establish communication.
It’s unsurprising that a film about nuclear weapons knows how to push all the right buttons. This is the film K-19 wants to be. It has a good plot, well developed main characters, interesting, recognisable supporting characters (including Viggo Mortensen and James Gandolfini), good acting, and is exciting from beginning to end. It also features an interesting if brief philosophical conversation about the rights and wrongs of nuclear strikes in which the two commanders’ positions are established.
It’s a film that operates on a far bigger scale than the very personal The Enemy Below (a film which it references) and the self contained K-19, with the fate of the world very much dependent on what happens in this submarine. It’s also the first film in this series where we’ve seen the characters’ families beforehand, showing a side to them that’s not just a soldier on a ship, which is a nice touch.
Its flaws are occasional predictability and implausibility, but as a tense submarine thriller it makes all the right choices. You know what you’re getting with a film like this, and Crimson Tide delivers at a rate of knots.