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Crimson Tide Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 May 2008
ImageIn the Soviet Union, a movement led by fanatical rebel Vladimir Radchenko (Daniel von Bargen) overthrows the current government and makes alarming threats against the U.S. and its allies.  Lt. Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington) and his friend, Lt. Peter “Weaps” Ince (Viggo Mortensen), are called away from Hunter’s daughter’s birthday party when events escalate.  Hunter is summoned to the submarine U.S.S. Alabama by Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman) as a last minute replacement for his Executive Officer (XO) who has come down with appendicitis.  Ramsey is a somewhat crusty career military man and has been a captain for nearly thirty years, while Hunter is brilliant and capable but has little combat experience.

The Alabama departs for waters around the Soviet Union, transporting a full arsenal of nuclear missiles several times more powerful than the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Captain Ramsey’s style of leadership strikes Hunter as needlessly taxing, particularly his insistence on running an emergency drill while Hunter and the crew are putting out a deadly fire in the kitchen.  The longer the crew stays below the surface, the greater the tension among the men becomes.  An Emergency Action Message from U.S. Naval Command informs them that Radchenko’s forces have seized control of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, are armed with the launch codes and are preparing to launch the missiles at the U.S. 

The Alabama’s crew is instructed to move the ship to firing depth and launch pre-emptively at the Russian target.  As they attempt to do this, they encounter a Russian Akula class submarine, which they engage.  Afterwards, as they head away they begin to receive another message from the U.S. but, unfortunately, their radio buoy was destroyed during the attack and the message is incomplete, with no clear instructions.  Captain Ramsey’s instincts are to ignore the message fragment and continue on their previous assignment to launch the missile strike, which would unleash a nightmarish nuclear attack upon Russia.  Hunter strongly disagrees, urging the captain to delay action until they can bring the sub close enough to the surface so they can receive the complete message.  Their agreement is necessary for them to proceed, but their violent disagreement leads Ramsey to attempt to immediately replace Hunter with someone who will give their assent to their course of action, which flies in the face of military regulations. As a result, Hunter has Ramsey removed from his command and has him locked in his quarters.  This event causes a schism within the crew as people loyal to Ramsey attempt to support him and regain the bridge.  Meanwhile, Hunter’s attempts to reach the surface are continually thwarted by Russian submarines they are forced to engage.  All the while, the clock counts down as Radchenko’s missiles get closer and closer to launch time.
Director Tony Scott’s taut submarine drama has all the hallmarks of a Jerry Bruckheimer production: a large cast of recognizable faces, elaborate production design, slick, polished special effects, and flashy imagery.  One particularly overdone visual flourish turns up during the rain-drenched submarine launch sequence.  Does every Bruckheimer film have to have sequences with sparks showering down from unseen welders?  Is there a great demand for welders who will work outside at night in the rain?  The scene already has enough production value:  a torrential downpour, a massive amount of cast members, a submarine placed within the frame with the sun rising just over the horizon.  It’s extra touches like these that make some of Bruckheimer’s imagery resemble car commercials more than dramatic films.  The submarine launch sequence also has one extra speech that the film does not need.  We’ve already had Ramsey’s discussion with Hunter, his speech to the officers, and a speech within the same scene as he walks through the rain among his men.  Just as the scene has reached an emotional climax and Ramsey has revved the men up for the mission, he walks up to a podium and makes another speech into a microphone that has no protection from the rain. (I don’t imagine Captain Ramsey has seen “Carrie.”)  Scott clearly wants to get the audience pumped up and excited about the mission, but by that point we’re already there.
The script by Michael Schiffer and Richard P. Henrick dramatizes an intellectual exercise, presenting a no-win dilemma under extremely stressful circumstances.  A case can strongly be made for either Ramsey’s or  Hunter’s point of view.  Deciding which of them is right is solely dependent on the outcome.  The conflicted crew and the captain being removed echoes “The Caine Mutiny,” but “Crimson Tide” has a greater degree of tension as the events occur during combat, not during a training exercise.  The cast is top notch. Hackman and Washington make the material crackle with fire and intensity, helping to create a gripping experience.  Hackman’s strength is that he doesn’t play the captain as a two-dimensional baddie, but as a believable, not un-likeable person.  While Ramsey’s intensity escalates into threats of murder and actual violence, the circumstances around these events are so tense that his behavior does not stretch credibility.  Quentin Tarantino, rather famously, did an uncredited re-write on the script and his bits stick out quite clearly, shoehorning in references to submarine movies, “Silver Surfer” comic books and “Star Trek,” and discussions on the breeding of Lippizaner stallions.  They add a little bit of offbeat humor, shaking up the tone of the drama a bit and make the film’s trajectory not so direct.
The epilogue featuring the military’s evaluation of the events aboard the Alabama feels too polite and too free of consequence.  It’s the kind of finale that satisfies U.S. military advisors who sign off on the script and allow Bruckheimer access to their subs and military hardware but it feels too pat a note on which to end.  
Director Scott and his director of photography Darius Wolski use brightly colored gels to differentiate rooms on the sub, giving the interiors some visual variety to accent mood.  It’s a stylized, unrealistic look, but it works.  The missile arming room is colored red (appropriately enough) with the radio room bathed in green, and bright white light in other areas.  The BD release is a worthwhile upgrade from the standard definition DVD.  The detailed production design and color-saturated photography are well served by this release.  The 2.40:1 image is crisp, detailed and stable, even during some of the action sequences that feature quick cutting.  Scenes that are bathed in deep red light occasionally bleed, but the greens and blues are extremely vivid and beautifully presented.  The crisp detail enhances your sense of the actors’ performances as you can see more of the fine lines in their expressions and the beads of sweat dripping down their faces.
The 5.1 PCM track is excellent.  Submarine movies are a sound designer’s dream, giving them a huge range of opportunities to use the multiple channels to enhance the atmosphere and create a sonic environment that gives the audience the feeling of being within the submarine.  The creaks and screeches of metal under pressure as the sub heads down to crush depth increases the tension as does the crisp, well mixed sound effects and music track.  The LFE channel is well utilized for torpedo explosions and adds weight to the sounds of the hull under pressure.

The BD replicates the bonus materials included on the initial standard definition DVD release. The two featurettes are short but entertaining.  “All Access” mostly captures on-set horseplay, hosted by the affable George Dzundza, but it does show Hackman and Washington rehearsing for their big confrontation scene.  “The Making of Crimson Tide” runs around 20 minutes and features some satisfying behind-the-scenes footage, including shots of the set which was built on a gimbal, enabling it to replicate the tilting motions of a real sub, as well as some revealing shots of the model work done for the submarine battle scene.  It also includes comments from all the key personnel, including Jerry Bruckheimer’s longtime co-producer, the late Don Simpson.  A few deleted scenes are included that are brief but worthwhile, the best being a fun (probably Tarantino-penned) joke told by the Chief of the Boat (George Dzundza).  An extended edition of the film was released a few years back, which included some of these scenes, as well as additional scene trims.  That version runs 7 minutes longer.  The scenes here are sourced from a low-resolution source and are presented in 2.40 letterboxed, non-anamorphic standard definition.  While I don’t have too strong an issue with the studio deciding to match the content of the first DVD release, (though they ideally should have included all the extras of the later edition, with a seamless branching version of the film with both original and extended cuts), but they should have at least upgraded the deleted scenes to HD.

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