In the movie Crimson Tide, Russian rebels take control of missiles, which they threaten to launch, starting nuclear war with the United States, if their demands are not met. Commander Hunter (Denzel Washington) is assigned to be Executive Officer aboard the Alabama, a nuclear submarine, whose mission it is to destroy those missiles at the first indication that they are about to be launched. The commanding officer of that submarine is Captain Ramsey (Gene Hackman), who is a little contemptuous of Hunter because he is an “egghead” who spent a year at Harvard, and because he has never seen combat.
Everything is going along just fine until fire breaks out in the kitchen, or whatever they call that in the navy. Then they are almost torpedoed by a Russian submarine, which also causes some damage. The end result is that they lose communication with Washington, D.C. just as a final message was coming through. Ramsey is determined to proceed according to the last order received, which was to launch nuclear missiles at the Russian 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. The result is a mutiny and then a counter mutiny. In the end, Hunter prevails, and it turns out he was right.
All in all, this is not a bad movie, but much of the suspense 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 just 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.
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. Hunter is court martialed and sentenced to twenty years in military prison.
Ending Two: Hunter succeeds in preventing Ramsey from destroying the rebel missile sites. As a result, the rebels are able to launch their missiles, full scale thermonuclear war breaks out, hundreds of millions of people die, 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.
As if that were not enough, the race of the two respective 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. Let Morgan Freeman play Captain Ramsey and let Brad Pitt play Commander Hunter. Everything that happens is otherwise the same. For example, Morgan Freeman punches Brad Pitt twice in the face for refusing to go along with the missile launch.
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. That would preserve our race expectations, but at the expense of violating our expectations regarding the rightness of using nuclear weapons.
Suffice it to say that the ending of this movie is doubly predictable.