Friday, July 26, 2013

Movie and Book – The Hunt for Red October (1990)

While flipping through channels on the TV do you ever find yourself stopping to watch a movie that you’ve already seen, even if you own it on DVD?  The Hunt for Red October is one of those movies for me.  I couldn’t count how many times I’ve stopped and watched whatever scene is playing, at least until the next commercial break.  Sometimes it even prompts me to get out the DVD and watch it again from the beginning.  Someday I will do a category of those kinds of movies for me (hint: Groundhog Day is another.)  Just as Das Boot is clearly the best submarine movie ever made, in my opinion, so too is The Hunt for Red October clearly the second best submarine movie ever made.

I saw this in the movie theater.  Unlike director John McTiernan’s earlier film Die Hard (1988) I only remember two crowd reactions to this movie.  When the screen said that a scene was set on the Penobscot River in Maine and Jack Ryan explained his family was from there the crowd in the Maine theater I was in clapped.  I will write about the second reaction later in this post. 

As it turns out, McTiernan had to pass on directing Die Hard 2 (1990) in order to do The Hunt for Red October.  He was able to return for Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995).  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first and third Die Hard movies are the two that most people point to as the best.  Toss in Predator (1987) and the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), among others, and the man knew how to make an entertaining film.  It’s too bad his legal issues have kept him from directing anything for the last ten years.

Before it even started The Hunt for Red October faced an interesting problem.  The Cold War background that drove the entire story had mostly evaporated in the six short years between the publication of Tom Clancy’s novel of the same name and the release of this film.  The filmmakers toyed with the idea of saying at the opening that there had been a coup in the Soviet Union that had overthrown Gorbachev, but they eventually decided to just set it in 1984 like the novel, which was before Gorbachev took power.  Seventeen months after the March 1990 release of this film there was just such a coup.  Even though it failed it is what eventually led to Gorbachev’s loss of power and the breakup of the Soviet Union.  As someone born into the Cold War, and who lived through the 80s, it still boggles my mind when I think of how vast the changes were in such a short time.

The movie details a Soviet nuclear missile submarine, named the Red October, that puts to sea for its initial test cruise.  Its senior Captain, Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), and his officers, including Captain Vasili Borodin (Sam Neill), plan something the Soviet High Command has no idea about.  Only the sub’s doctor (Tim Curry) is out of the loop.  When the sub stops following orders the entire Soviet Atlantic fleet goes searching for it.  Watch for Stellan Skarsgard’s first appearance in a Hollywood film as the Captain of another Soviet sub that is in pursuit.

Unknown to the Red October they have been followed by an American submarine ever since they went to sea.  Its Captain, Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn), is a veteran of the Cold War.  When all of a sudden the Red October “disappears” from sonarman Jones’ (Courtney B. Vance) scope, the Americans don’t know what has happened.  As it turns out, the Soviet submarine has engaged a new “caterpillar” drive that runs without making any sound that could be interpreted as a propeller.  It is basically a jet engine for underwater.  The Red October knows it is working because when they change direction they discover the American sub that has been following them as it just continues on the former course, now making it visible to the Red October.

Meanwhile CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) has just flown into Washington from London at the request of his mentor Admiral Greer (James Earl Jones).  Ryan is to give a briefing to the National Security Advisor on photos of the Red October that had been taken while it was being built.  In a short time the briefing changes to a strategy session as it is revealed that the entire Soviet Navy has been given orders to find and sink the Red October.  Everyone feels that it is their worst fear: a nuclear missile submarine Captain that has gone rogue.  As the opening of the film tells us, the three most powerful men on the planet are the U.S. President, the Soviet Premier, and the Captain of a nuclear missile submarine.  Only Jack Ryan feels something else might be happening: maybe Captain Ramius is trying to defect.  He is sent on a mission to try to make contact with the Red October, assuming it can be located.  Meanwhile, the American Navy must respond in kind to all the Soviet warships that are heading toward the U.S.  What if this pursuit of the Red October is just a ruse to get armaments in place for the start of a war?

Even though he was the star of the film, 31 year old Alec Baldwin received second billing to Sean Connery.  He had been making movies for a few years, but his most notable role prior to this had been in Tim Burton’s 1988 film Beetlejuice.  He wasn’t an obvious choice to play Jack Ryan and in fact the role was first offered to Kevin Costner, who was coming off his star making turns in The Untouchables and Field of Dreams.  He had this little movie named Dances with Wolves that he decided to do instead and I think it worked out for the best for both movies.  Baldwin was great in the role, so great in fact, that when they put Harrison Ford in the role for the next two films it just didn’t work for me.  Connery knew Baldwin was going to be big because during filming he used to come up to him sometimes and just say “Baldwin, Alec Baldwin” in a “Bond, James Bond” tone of voice.

Connery only had to speak Russian for a short while in the movie.  McTiernan did a smart thing by having the Soviets speaking Russian at the beginning, and subtitles appearing on screen.  It made it seem more realistic.  To satisfy those people who hate subtitles, though, he had a scene early on where the camera zooms in on the mouth of a man speaking Russian.  It stops, starts to pull back out, and the man is now speaking in English.  It was a great way to get across the fact that we were hearing a translation of what was being said.  I’ve since seen this technique used in other movies.

The Hunt for Red October was influential in other ways, too.  The TV show Jag re-used footage from this movie in a couple of their early episodes.  And look for my upcoming post on the 1995 movie Crimson Tide for how it impacted that film.

For once, a movie adaptation of a book turned out to be relatively faithful to its source.  There is a lot more depth of characterization in the novel, but movies don’t have that luxury so some of that was understandably condensed.  While all the exciting action at the end of the movie is also in the book, it doesn't all happen at the same time.  The movie pumped up the experience by throwing them all together.  While the novel is filled with military jargon, as pretty much all Clancy’s books are, it is a quick read anyway.

Before I go, one story I want to relate is that while it may feel like movie audiences are getting dumber, I’m here to tell you that they’ve probably always been dumb.  During a “crazy Ivan” moment in the film where the American sub has to hide from the Soviet sub by shutting down all engines and just drifting, the movie shows the two subs side by side.  Suddenly the voice of a woman rings out in the theater, “Can’t they *see* each other?”  People turned to look and she got this “What?” expression on her face.  Her boyfriend/husband looked like he wanted to crawl into a hole in the floor of the theater.  Apparently she had missed the fact that subs don’t have windows in them that the crews can look out.

The Hunt for Red October is a gripping and exciting film.  It keeps you engaged with all that is going on, but at the same time does a good job with allowing the audience to understand where they are and what is happening.  It was also a star making turn for Alec Baldwin.  Unless you hate submarine movies I highly recommend this film. 

You know what?  I’m going to go watch it again right now.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. For me, this is one of the great submarine movies. I just love the sense of intrigue that occurs in the film. My favorite performance in that film is Sam Neill's. The scene where he and Connery have a conversation about what they want to do in America where Neill's character says he wants to go to Montana. There's an innocence there that is so touching.

    1. "And I will buy a pickup truck, or maybe even a recreational vehicle, and I will drive from state to you think they will let me do that?"


      "With no papers?"

      "No papers."

  2. Imagine what the following movies would have been like if Baldwin had continued playing Ryan? That is an interesting thought. I like that.

    1. I would have liked to have seen him in them. I think he freaked a little bit because everybody wanted a piece of him after this movie. He decided rather than do movies he would do a revival of an old play on Broadway. When he did his extended cameo in Glengarry Glen Ross a few years later it was almost an "oh yeah, this guy had screen presence" moment.