In the movie Crimson Tide, Russian rebels take control of nuclear missiles, which they threaten to launch, starting nuclear war with the United States, if their demands are not met. Leaves are canceled, and Commander Hunter (Denzel Washington) is assigned to be the executive officer aboard the Alabama, a nuclear submarine, whose commanding officer is Captain Ramsey (Gene Hackman).
When we first see Hunter, he and his wife are throwing a birthday party for their daughter, who is five years old. He also has an eight-year-old son. When we first see Captain Ramsey, all we see is a dog, which we assume is the extent of his “family.” So, we know we are supposed to like Hunter, but be suspicious of Ramsey.
Ramsey is contemptuous of Hunter. When interviewing him, Ramsey smirks when he reads that Hunter spent a year at Harvard. Even though Hunter was at the top of the list for replacing the submarine’s executive officer, Ramsey belittles Hunter by pointing out that it was a short list. He further shows what he thinks of Hunter by saying that the previous executive officer was the best he ever had, implying that Hunter will never be able to measure up. When Ramsey finds out that Hunter likes to ride horses, his favorite being an Arabian, Ramsey disingenuously remarks that he wouldn’t be able to handle an Arabian. “Just give me an old paint,” he says, sharing a knowing chuckle with the Chief of the Boat. They clearly regard the riding of an Arabian horse as elitist. Then we find out that Ramsey is a sexist and misogynist, as he goes on to compare horses to high school girls:
Yeah, horses are fascinating animals. Dumb as fence posts, but very intuitive. In that way, they’re not too different from high school girls. They might not have a brain in their head, but they do know all the boys want to fuck ’em. Don’t have to be able to read Ulysses to know where they’re comin’ from.
What do you bet that Hunter is a Democrat, and Ramsey is a Republican?
In any event, Ramsey strikes us as a bully, making fun of a subordinate who just has to sit there and take it. He is small-minded and petty, holding a grudge against Hunter on account of his education, indirectly referring to him as an “egghead.” Later on, Hunter’s friend, Lieutenant Ince, explains to Hunter what we have already figured out:
To him, you’re Annapolis, Harvard, expert on theory, well-versed in world affairs. Ha! He’s had his head up his ass driving ships for the last twenty-five years. He’s probably a little paranoid about that. I mean, Navy’s all he’s got. Navy and that little rat-dog of his. That’s why his wife left him.
Now, the scriptwriters could have made him a widower, having Ince say, “Navy’s all he’s got. Navy and that little rat-dog of his, ever since his wife died.” But that would have made him a sympathetic figure, and we couldn’t have that. In fact, the writers didn’t even vouchsafe him a no-fault divorce. Instead, the writers had Ince say that his wife left him, from which we are to imagine that she just got fed up with him because he was an insufferable jerk.
Try to imagine that it was Ramsey who, at the beginning of the movie, was filming his granddaughter’s birthday party when the call came in for him to prepare to ship out, while it was Hunter whose wife left him. That would have made this an interesting movie, with both Ramsey and Hunter playing less predictable roles. Instead, we get a simplistic opposition—good family man versus bad family man—leading to a predictable outcome.
After they have boarded the submarine and left port, Ramsey expresses his one regret about heading out to sea: “My last breath of polluted air for the next sixty-five days,” he says, as he inhales on his cigar. “I don’t trust air I can’t see.” Now we know he is a Republican.
Tension builds between Ramsey and Hunter. Then they receive orders to launch nuclear missiles to take out the rebel missiles. Before they can do that, they are almost torpedoed by a Russian submarine, which causes some damage. The end result is that they lose communication with Washington, D.C. just as a final message was coming through, of which they get only a fragment. Ramsey is determined to proceed according to the last complete order received, which was to launch nuclear missiles at the rebel missile sites. Hunter argues that they should not proceed, because the message fragment might have been an order to cancel the launch. Let other submarines, which are not damaged and out of communication, do what needs to be done, he argues. When Ramsey tries to break protocol and replace Hunter, so that he can have someone concur with his order to launch, the result is a mutiny and then a counter mutiny.
Perhaps the most condescending part of this movie is the way the sailors are depicted as being deep into pop culture. It’s not so bad when they play trivia regarding submarine movies like The Enemy Below and Run Silent Run Deep, but when they get into fights over the Silver Surfer and have to be inspired by comparisons to Star Trek, we have to wonder what kind of sailors are on that submarine. Actually, the question we really have to ask is, what kind of regard do the scriptwriters have for the intended audience? They are obviously appealing to all the science-fiction and comic-book nerds that will be watching this movie, so that they can see themselves as fitting right in on that submarine, just like real men. And they are presumably appealing to movie-nerds like me as well, to make us suppose we would fit right in too, but I have no illusions on that score.
After Ramsey retakes command of the submarine, radio contact is on the verge of being restored. He agrees to wait three minutes for a confirmation to launch. While they wait, in order to keep from being bored, he starts talking to Hunter again about horses:
Ramsey: Speaking of horses, did you ever see those Lipizzaner stallions?
Ramsey: From Portugal. The Lipizzaner stallions. The most highly trained horses in the world. They’re all white.
Hunter: Yes, sir.
Ramsey: “Yes, sir,” you’re aware they’re all white or “yes, sir,” you’ve seen them?
Hunter: Yes, sir, I’ve seen them. Yes, sir, I’m aware that they’re all white. They’re not from Portugal. They’re from Spain. And at birth, they’re not white, they’re black.
While I admit that it’s cute the way the scriptwriters use these conversations about horses as a unifying theme for these two men, I have to wonder about the emphasis being placed by Ramsey on the fact that the horses are white. Is this supposed to be an indirect way for Ramsey to express his attitude of white supremacy? And is Hunter’s response supposed to suggest that these horses are essentially black, since they are born that way? It seems almost too dumb to countenance. And yet, if that is not the point of this conversation, then what is?
In the end, radio contact is restored, proving that Hunter was right: the order to launch missiles had been cancelled. Subsequently, at a hearing on these events, Ramsey is allowed to be magnanimous in defeat, taking early retirement and recommending Hunter be given his next command.
Any chance for suspense in this movie is undermined by the fact that the ending is completely predictable. First of all, in any movie you have ever seen in which someone wants to launch nuclear weapons, that person is either crazy, as in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964); evil, as in The Dead Zone (1983); or wrongheaded, as in Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977). So, we know there is no way that it is going to turn out that Ramsey is right and Hunter is wrong, though we can try to imagine two possible endings going against this formula.
Ending One: Ramsey succeeds in launching the missiles. And it is good he did too, because all the other American submarines in the area had been taken out by Russian submarines. As a result, the missiles controlled by the rebels are destroyed, and even the Russians are grateful for Ramsey’s bold and decisive action. Ramsey is promoted to admiral, while Hunter is court-martialed and sentenced to thirty years in military prison.
Ending Two: Hunter succeeds in preventing Ramsey from taking out the rebel sites. As a result, the rebels are able to launch their missiles, full scale thermonuclear war breaks out, hundreds of millions of people die immediately, and the Earth is poisoned with radioactivity. Hunter realizes he was wrong, as he and the other members of the crew slowly begin dying of radiation sickness.
Needless to say, those two endings, though certainly possible in real life, are unthinkable for a movie. On the Beach (1959) has the world coming to an end as a result of nuclear war and the radioactive fallout that follows, but it is not an example of Ending Two because no one on the nuclear submarine is to blame. Notably, this movie did not come up during the trivia game about submarine movies.
The race of the two officers also makes the outcome predictable. We cannot simply switch the roles of these two actors, because Gene Hackman is about twenty-five years older than Denzel Washington. But let’s use our imagination. Suppose they had selected Morgan Freeman to play Captain Ramsey and Brad Pitt to play Commander Hunter. And then suppose that everything that happened was otherwise the same. For example, Morgan Freeman punches Brad Pitt twice in the face for refusing to go along with the missile launch. But in the end, Morgan Freeman is proven to be wrong.
While something like that could happen in real life, this too would be unthinkable for a movie.
Of course, we could have Morgan Freeman’s Ramsey turn out to be right, launching the missiles and saving the day, while Brad Pitt’s Hunter is court-martialed, as imagined in Ending One above. That would preserve the requirements regarding race, but at the expense of violating the principle that whoever wants to launch nuclear weapons is crazy, evil, or wrongheaded.
Finally, there was no way that the wholesome family man was going to turn out to be wrong, while the man whose wife left him was going to turn out to be right.
Suffice it to say that the ending of this movie is triply predictable: the officer that is (1) African American, (2) a good family man, and (3) opposed to launching nuclear missiles must prevail over the officer that is (1) white, (2) a bad family man, and (3) in favor of launching nuclear missiles.
A variation on this interplay of nuclear weapons and African Americans occurs in The Sum of All Fears (2002). In that movie, a bunch of neo-Nazis have decided to do what Hitler should have done: get the Americans and the Russians to fight each other. To that end, they purchase a nuclear bomb on the black market, which they intend to detonate in the United States, thereby precipitating World War III.
In the first part of this movie, we aren’t too worried, because Morgan Freeman plays William Cabot, Director of the C.I.A. Should the neo-Nazis succeed in their plan to explode the nuke, he will provide the wise counsel that President Fowler (James Cromwell) needs to keep from launching a misguided attack on the Russians. However, when the nuclear device goes off at a football game, Cabot is mortally wounded. Now there are nothing but white males running things in the White House, and they are all becoming emotional and irrational. They want to launch a nuclear strike against the Russians. We know they would be wrong to do so, because it was not the Russians that were responsible for nuking that football game. But that knowledge is superfluous, because we already know that anyone in a movie that wants to launch nuclear weapons is in the wrong.
Things are worse in Russia. At least here in the United States, after the death of Cabot, there are still some low-level, African-American officers and intelligence analysts to help keep things on an even keel; but over in Russia, they don’t have any African Americans at all.
Therefore, it’s all up to Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck), Cabot’s top analyst in the C.I.A. He knows that the bomb’s plutonium was manufactured in the United States, so the attack must be a rogue operation. But he can’t get through to the president because he and all his top aides are white, and they won’t listen.
Ryan goes to the Pentagon, but things don’t look good. They’re all white, and they won’t listen.
But wait! There’s a black general. Oh, thank God! He’ll listen.
And listen he does, allowing Ryan to save the day.
And so it is that if you are going to make a movie about the possibility of nuclear war, the only way the movie will have any suspense is if you make it look as though there are no African Americans around to keep the white males from blowing up the world.
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