Crimson Tide has the feeling of being a homecoming of sorts for director Tony Scott: in large part because it returned him to the comforting bosom of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, five years after Days of Thunder. There are plenty of just fine movies that Scott made without those producers; there are plenty of just fine movies those producers made without him. But their aesthetic mentalities just fit together so nicely - much more nicely even then Simpson/Bruckheimer and Michael Bay, who first collaborated earlier the same year with Bad Boys - that it feels like a proper Tony Scott film again, indulging in all his strengths as a filmmaker, however dubious they might be. I refer to his gung-ho love of iconic masculinity; his ability, honed in making TV commercials and never quite abandoned anywhere in his whole career, to present any subject in a serious of glamorous product shots; his flair for depicting high-tech machines with reverence that doesn't quite fall on the wrong side of pornography.
Also, not for nothing, Crimson Tide is the first time that Scott worked with Denzel Washington, who'd end up anchoring the director's late-career run of movies, and is frequently the best thing about any of them. It wouldn't be for another nine years that the two would collaborate again, so it's not really possible to argue that this movie has any kind of continuity with their later projects together. But it's surely not an accident that Washington appeared in more Scott films than any other leading man, and just as the relationship between the director and producers seems to be "right" on some deep level, because they were so closely aligned in what they wanted their movies to be, the relationship between the director and actor is equally as right, though for a largely opposite reason: Washington's considerable authority and the gravity he brings to every role, just by virtue of his screen presence, have the tendency to add a sense of sobriety and human solidity to a filmmaking aesthetic that does, after all, tend to thrive on shallow style with no real interest in character or emotions.
All of this adds up to Crimson Tide being, in my estimation, just about the best of all Tony Scott's films, with the possible exception of the singularly uncharacteristic The Hunger. It's just one of those glossy popcorn movies where everything goes right: on a purely experiential level, it's exciting and zippy, it's as much eye candy as you could possibly force out of a movie that's set, for easily 80% of its running time, on a submarine, and it raises interesting moral questions that actually require you to walk into the movie willing to think about what's going on, not just passively receive it as vigorous spectacle. It's just the right mix of smart about its subject and enthusiastically shallow about its presentation to hit the best kind of sweet spot for intense summertime fun that you don't have to feel even a little bit embarrassed about liking; it's a sleek, perfectly-tuned machine that hums along so sharply that it doesn't even register what an all-around boys' club it is (the last time we see a woman, let alone hear one speak, is around the seven-minute mark), or how wildly implausible the central conflict is, so far afield of anything that might actually occur onboard a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine that the Navy refused to provide the filmmakers with any resources whatsoever, no matter what a tongue-bath the film ends up being to the manliness and technical potency of that agency.
The film's plot, wildly implausible though it be, is admirably straightforward and cleanly expressed - there are few things indeed I've come to appreciate more as the years go by than a popcorn movie with a nice clean narrative. Lt. Cmdr. Ron Hunter (Washington) has just been assigned to the nuclear sub U.S.S. Alabama, as executive officer underneath the well-respected Capt. Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman). The two men are both very capable and respectful of each other, though they have somewhat different views on appropriate military behavior, with Ramsey preferring a strictly hierarchal, "no questions asked" approach to discipline, while Hunter - who has never served in combat, unlike his new boss - takes a much more questioning, democratic approach ("We're here to preserve democracy, not practice it", Ramsey tartly explains at one point, in the film's best line). This would ordinarily not be a problem, except that tensions are high right now with some unrest in Chechnya and a rebel leader blaming the United States for the miserable state of post-Soviet Russia, and wouldn't you know it, but he might have control of his country's nukes. So the Alabama is ordered to launch a nuclear strike against Russia, and even this isn't the problem: Hunter is visibly unhappy to be part of the command structure making that attack, but he's willing to follow unambiguous orders.
The problem happens about halfway through the movie: a communication about the nuclear attack starts to come through, but a rebel-controlled Russian sub has been giving the Alabama some grief, and it's right at this moment that the communications link goes dead. Hunter, aware of the gravity of launching a nuclear strike, wants to reestablish communications to find out whether their orders were just countermanded, while Ramsey, aware of the potential gravity of notlaunching a nuclear strike, does not want to wait a single minute. So does the simmering, but ultimately inoffensive tension between the two officers spill over into an act of mutiny, with Hunter relieving the increasingly raging Ramsey from command and the crew of the Alabama splitting along any number of fractures into two camps.
There is one thing the movie does poorly - two, actually; the emphasis on the Chechen rebels in the opening scene is entirely disproportionate to the amount of actual narrative importance they serve; they're a MacGuffin, and the film starts out like it wants to stake a for-real political claim that it never remotely follows through with. The big flaw is that we know exactly what kind of movie we're in for, and we know what happens when you cast Denzel Washington in this role and Gene Hackman in that role, and so there is not a drop of tension that it might actually prove to be case that the Alabama is still under orders to launch nukes. But even with that massive caveat in place, the film plays an exquisitely modulated game of comparing both sides: Ramsey is surely the more personally unpleasant of the two men, but he's never made "the bad guy" in any melodramatic sense, and the movie gets a great deal out of mileage from the simple question of which man, given all the knowledge they have at their diposal, is acting in the right. The film itself answers that explicitly as both, and neither, and that's part of what makes Crimson Tide such a uniquely thought-provoking mindless submarine thriller: it allows the "other" side to seem completely reasonable and well-judged, if you accept the basic principles that Ramsey works under.
And so we end up with an unusually sophisticated and beautifully-acted two-hander about strong-willed, aggressive men facing each other down and refusing to budge; and I do not want to denigrate the contributions of a nicely-packed ensemble cast with some particularly fine character performances (including one of the best of James Gandolfini's pre-stardom roles, more subtle but maybe even better than his work with Scott on True Romance) by calling the film a two-hander. But really, that's where Crimson Tide thrives: in its dramatisation of the clash between to men in a tight space that grows tighter by the moment. Everything is ultimately driven towards that, as the inside of the Alabama, colored in searing primary colors by Dariusz Wolski and framed in many uncomfortably shallow medium shots, becomes as suffocating as any movie submarine this side of Das Boot, both an extension of the struggle between the two men and even, to an extent, an explanation for it; we get a real sense of how much it costs them to be crammed in together simply because we're crammed right in with them.
It's awfully direct, even spare: one conflict, the stakes are nuclear Armageddon, ready, set, go. For good and not as good, everything in the movie is designed to heighten the impact of that conflict, from Hans Zimmer's Wagner-indebted score (right at the dawn of the period where he became much too content to recycle clichés, with none of the creativity of his earliest and newest work), to the abrasively harsh sound design (rightfully nominated for Sound and Sound Effects Editing Oscars). It is not a movie with unimagined depths, or nuances that you only pick up slowly: it puts everything out there, and gets us tremendously worked up in knots just like the crew watching this situation reach the boiling point, while demanding that we think about it, rather than just have that feeling of tension for the sake of it. By God, it works beautifully; it's as good a thriller as 1995 produced, keeping things as simple and direct as possible and trusting that the interplay of two great actors at their most frayed will keep the movie alert and alive and intense. And boy, is it ever those things, all of them.