' Cinema Romantico: Wistfully '95: Crimson Tide

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Wistfully '95: Crimson Tide

Since I could finally both drive and get into R-rated movies in 1995, it doubled as the year in which I fell head over heels in love for the experience of Going To The Movies. And so, here in the future in 2015, we will periodically re-visit a handful of the offerings to which I first paid homage in various multiplex cathedrals of Des Moines, Iowa.

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It’s movie obsessive common knowledge that Tony Scott’s “True Romance” co-conspirator Quentin Tarantino did uncredited rewrites to Scott’s 1995 submarine epic “Crimson Tide”, named for a football team that then was not quite as overbearing as it is now. Mr. Tarantino’s re-writes pertained not to sonar and periscopes, because that's not Q.T.'s wheelhouse, but rather to additions of pop culture, marking it a tad more accessible and a bit more humorous. One of those additions appears near the start when a couple submarine officers earnestly discuss commanders in submarine movies. They mention “The Enemy Below”, which pit Robert Mitchum as an American sub captain locked in deep sea battle with Curd Jurgens as a German sub captain. They mention “Run Silent Run Deep” in which Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy are both Americans aboard the same sub who must find a way to work together. And while both these movies inform “Crimson Tide”, rest assured, Tony Scott, the maverick who gave birth to Maverick, goes his own way.


“A maximalist,” Manohla Dargis wrote in her New York Times obituary of Tony Scott, “(he) used a lot of everything in his movies: smoke, cuts, camera moves, color.” Truth. Mr. Scott never met a formal trick he wouldn’t subsequently pile like so much coleslaw on top of a cinematic sandwich that already had two pounds of meat and fries. “Busy” never really captured his aesthetic; his camera was a day trader high on whatever you’d like and everything else. Still, what often got lost amidst his impressive deployments of frenzied style were the epic confrontations between characters. Tony Scott loved confrontations. We remember “Top Gun” for its flash and dash and Ray Bans, of course, but we remember it just as fondly for Maverick vs. Ice and Maverick vs. Jester and Maverick vs. Viper and Maverick vs. Himself. We remember Christopher Walken squaring off with Dennis Hopper in an incredible verbal tete a tete. Then there’s “Crimson Tide.”

In theory, “Crimson Tide” is a showdown between the United States and a Russian ultra-nationalist, between opposing submarines lurking in the depths of the sea. Of course, it’s not really about any of those Cliff Notes. What it’s really about is the two primary officers aboard the U.S. Naval nuclear sub, the USS Alabama (“Go ‘bama! Roll tide!”), Captain Frank Ramsey and his brand new handpicked Executive Officer Ron Hunter. It’s about slowly escalating confrontation between these two men born of an order rendered incomplete on account of a technical glitch that causes mutinies and reams and reams of splendid shouting matches. More than that, though, it’s about a confrontation between two actors, Gene Hackman raising hell as Ramsey and Denzel Washington maintaining impassioned fastidiousness as Hunter.

To be sure, Scott gussies up his films with plenty of bells and whistles, not to mention lathering it up with a prototypical booming Hans Zimmer score. There are depth charges and catastrophic leaks and missiles fired and all sorts of other traditional action-packed entrees served. Yet it never comes across as more than Simpson/Bruckheimer contracted scaffolding to provide a place where two all-world thespians can unleash verbal torrents, both loudly or quietly. It’s a friendly, hella good reminder that so often the only energy source a film requires to power it to ascendant heights is a couple acting titans. And this is why the film ends not with more missiles fired and not with WWIII, but with Hackman and Washington seated across from one another discussing Lipizzan Stallions.


It also ends with Ramsey recommending to a Naval Tribunal that Hunter be given command of his own boat, and it’s not difficult to read this conclusion as Hackman passing the baton of his own role on to his co-star. “When threatened, Hackman retreats to his glasses and clipboard,” Steven Hyden wrote in his January retrospective of the actor, “the accoutrements of command. And how does Denzel respond? I DO NOT RECOGNIZE YOUR AUTHORITY. Like that, Denzel Washington becomes Gene Hackman right before your eyes. And Denzel held on to that role in subsequent movies. Flash forward 20 years and it’s Denzel playing daddy to Mark Wahlberg in 2 Guns.”

Eh, yes and no. I'd agree with the first part, not the second. Yes, Washington has often assumed the Ramsey-ish role of charismatic elder, dealing with or imparting wisdom to or screaming at a co-star, but Wahlberg vs. Washington is assuredly not Washington vs. Hackman. Nor was Ethan Hawke in “Training Day”, a part working away from Washington’s King Kong postulating and a performance that didn't win even if its character did. Angelia Jolie took a turn as Washington's protégé in “The Bone Collector” and though she won an Academy Award a year later this was still before Angie had cracked the Jolie Movie Star Code. Ryan Reynolds in “Safe House” is like watching a Biloxi Shucker flail away against a Major League pitcher.

“For more than 30 years,” Hyden wrote, “people bought movie tickets to watch Hackman take charge.” In “Crimson Tide”, Hackman took charge and Washington had the cojones to wrestle that charge away. And now, twenty years later, Washington continues roaming Hollywood evermore intent to take overblown thrillers like “The Equalizer” in an increasingly woebegone effort to find someone willing and able to wrest charge away from him. I fear in twenty years, he'll still be searching.

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