By 1995, the Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer brand of movies had become firmly ensconced within the American film industry. These films were heavily patriotic, bombastic, and flashy– but more often than not, had skillfully told stories at their centers. In 1995, Tony Scott again collaborated with these producing titans to create CRIMSON TIDE, an action film about the struggle of power in a nuclear-armed submarine. In the grand picture of Scott’s filmography, I would consider it a minor work– however, it’s an exciting, well-crafted story about male power struggles in a time of conflict. And most notably, for our purposes here, CRIMSON TIDE marks the first movement in a major stylistic shift that would Scott would adopt for the remainder of his work.
By the mid 90’s, the Cold War was history, but the lingering residue continued to fuel the entertainment industry like it had in the decades prior. CRIMSON TIDE tells the story of Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman), the commander of a nuclear missile submarine. He subscribes to a simple mantra: there are three truly powerful men in the world: The US President, the President of Russia, and the Commander of a US nuclear submarine. Naturally, this is going to be a story about the struggle of power. The opposition comes in the form of Ramsey’s new XO, Lt. Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington, in the first of many collaborations with Scott). When a transmission implying the launch of Russian nuclear missiles is cut off during an attack on their submarine, Hunter and Ramsey spar over whether to initiate a missile response when there’s a reasonable doubt over the transmissions’ accuracy.
The performances in this film are full of pure testosterone. In fact, I don’t recall a single female in the entire cast. Hackman and Washington are captivating as the two leads, whose opposing ideologies (guts vs. reason, action vs. caution) provide enough fodder to pad out the film’s running time without losing our attention. Viggo Mortenson (who would later go on to star in 1999’s G.I. JANE for Scott’s brother, Ridley) plays the officer unfortunately caught between his loyalty to his friend and to his commander. Scott also utilizes TRUE ROMANCE’s James Gandolfini as Hackman’s thuggish enforcer. There’s a lot of bravado, angry barking, and swearing between these men, but the claustrophobic confines of the sub and the life-or-death stakes of their actions makes it riveting instead of grating.
I had never seen CRIMSON TIDE before, and truth be told, I would frequently confuse it with THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (they’re both submarine movies with shades of red in their titles, get off my back!). Now that my ocular organs have ingested it, I’m sure it’ll be much harder to get the two confused. Since the film is seventeen years old, I expected it to be a little dated (especially because the Cold War hasn’t been relevant for about half of my lifetime), but I was surprised to see how well it holds up on a technical level.
Scott trades in his previous collaborations to work with a new Director of Photography, Dariusz Wolski. While the established Scott aesthetic continues here (Anamorphic aspect ratios, high contrast, dramatic skies, warm orange tones in exterior shots), Wolski seems to encourage Scott to refresh certain components of his style. As a result, this is the first film in Scott’s canon where the tone of his late-career work would come into play. Wolski subdues orange colors, favoring the clinical blues, greens, and even reds of the claustrophobic submarine setting. Wolski even uses dramatic color blocking to light scenes, where one half of an actor’s face might be lit entirely in red, while the other side is lit entirely blue It’s a more diverse, slightly colder color palette that suits the machinery of the military/industrial complex.
Scott even starts mixing up his tried-and-true camerawork. While keeping true to his preferences for a locked-down, stable camera and wide compositions, he plays around with the film’s unique setting. With CRIMSON TIDE, he begins to introduce handheld camera shots, lens flares, dynamic close-up shots, canted angles, etc. All of it gels together in a quick, punchy editing style influenced by music video cutting (most noticeably in the opening credits, which is a quick compilation of news footage bringing us up to speed on the state of current affairs).
Being a Simpson/Bruckheimer production, Hans Zimmer naturally provides his services on the score. It’s a loud, brassy score, but iconic and memorable. I had heard the theme years before just by virtue of being a Zimmer fan, but it works incredibly well in the context of the film. My only complaint is that it supports the tone a little too well, as it tends to cross over into the realm of propaganda from time to time.
One of the cool things about ingesting a director’s entire work in chronological order is that I’ve begun to notice small referential things, like little in-jokes. For instance, Hackman’s character carries around a Jack Russel terrier throughout the film, which just so happens to be brother Ridley’s favorite dog breed. The man is as enthusiastic about them as I am with pugs. Scott also references his debut film THE HUNGER (1983) by playing the classical music from that film in Captain Ramsey’s quarters. Ramsey even dons a red baseball cap similar to the weathered-pink one that Scott infamously sported throughout his career.
Ultimately, CRIMSON TIDE is a compelling post-Cold War film that turns the focus of the conflict inward. No one is truly a bad guy– each is acting in what he perceives to be the best interests of the United States. The story stresses the need for pause and double-checking oneself, even in the most stressful and dire of circumstances. It’s all reverential and highly ceremonial, much like the military itself, but the performances make the whole thing come alive. While it’s not a wholly unforgettable film, CRIMSON TIDE’s value in cinematic history is only diluted by the strength of other Scott works like TRUE ROMANCE and MAN ON FIRE.
CRIMSON TIDE is currently available on standard definition DVD from Walt Disney.