If ever there a film embodied the definition of a contradiction, it is Crimson Tide. A large-scale epic set almost entirely in a single location, this is a world-saving narrative of potentially apocalyptic consequences that plays out as a conflict between two men. Some movies strive for entertainment whilst others pursue accuracy, and it is rare to find a film that manages both. Crimson Tide is a detailed and thrilling tale told as a personality clash—it is big-budget high-stakes drama that would work as effectively as a small-scale stage performance as it does on the silver screen.
When a renegade Russian general threatens nuclear attack, a submarine crew are ordered to launch a pre-emptive strike; however they then receive a second message, the detail of which is lost. The Captain is well-established on this boat, but the Executive Officer—his second-in-command—is new. Along with consistent personal disagreements, they do not concur regarding the decision to launch, and so the entire crew find themselves forced to take sides.
Crimson Tide is a film brimming with tension from the start, but not necessarily from the unseen enemy. There is a brilliant sequence where an enemy hunter-killer submarine is encountered, but even that pales in comparison to the brewing storm between the two commanding officers. Gene Hackman plays the Captain with a forceful arrogance in a role he seems born for. He is a subtle bully who expects unwavering obedience, so when he is denied that his reactions are both surprising and inevitable. Denzel Washington is the Executive Officer pitted against his Captain, and he is precise and deliberate and calm in chaos, for the most part. Both actors are brilliant here, and entirely believable as commanders of a submarine.
The supporting cast includes some regulars for director Tony Scott, such as Matt Craven and James Gandolfini, and some solid character acting from Viggo Mortensen and Danny Nucci. The dialogue varies from military procedures to discussions of comic books which were added by Quentin Tarantino in an uncredited rewrite. The dark and claustrophobic world of the submarine is shot stunningly, and visual aids such as screen readouts being projected onto actors’ faces offer an immersive experience.
The one thing Crimson Tide never does is assume the audience is stupid, and it is here, I think, that its strengths truly lie. Though the attention to detail is incredible, and the dialogue reflective of genuine naval processes, the plot barrels forwards at a hundred knots. Nothing is over-explained and instead the rift between the two main cast members is forced wider through circumstance and choices. The film still holds up, and will do long into the future.