The Hunt for Red October (1990)
Dir. by John McTiernan
Starring Alec Baldwin, Sean Connery, James Earl Jones and Scott Glenn
During the 1980s, the captain of the Soviet Union’s newest high-tech submarine goes AWOL with the vessel while on a training mission. While most of the American military thinks that he’s gone rogue and is attempting a strike on the U.S., CIA analyst Jack Ryan instead believes that he is actually trying to defect. But how can he prove this before the sub gets close enough to launch its missiles?
Even though this is a PG movie, I’m pretty sure I didn’t see it until I was in middle school at least. I certainly have no memories of having seen it before about the age of 13, a good five years after it had come out. But I know I’d seen it several times before I finally got around to reading the book.
My senior year in high school, and continuing on into my first year of college, I went on a big Tom Clancy kick. I read four or five of his novels in a row, before I got bored and wandered back to epic fantasy again. Of those, the only one I have strong memories of is The Hunt for Red October, his first novel. I found both the book and the later movie that was based on it to be highly effective and enjoyable espionage thrillers. They’re also quite atypical for Hollywood action fare.
The book might be an airport paperback, but it’s surprisingly lacking in the violent tropes of most spy thrillers, a trait that carries over into the quite excellent film. Instead of shootouts, chases and escapes, the action is of a much more cerebral variety. Our hero, Jack Ryan, isn’t yet the clichéd action hero that he’d become in later books and films in the franchise. Here, he’s a desk-bound analyst, his military career cut off before it could begin by a helicopter accident that left him with a bad back and a fear of flying. He spends most of the movie having to outthink both Captain Ramius and the Soviet navy pursuing him, and he doesn’t even come into contact with Ramius and the Red October until the final twenty minutes. As such, Alec Baldwin is perfect casting – believable as someone who might have had military training a decade ago, but not as stereotypical an action hero as Harrison Ford or Chris Pine, both of whom would later go on to portray the character.
On the other side of the equation, we have Sean Connery, in one of his last great performances as Captain Marko Ramius. A lot was made at the time about his complete lack of any attempt to do a Russian accent, and how his thick Scottish took a lot of reviewers out of the movie. I, for one, have no problem with it at all, and I actually think that it logically fits the character. Most of the other Russians in the film are played by either British actors, or European/Australian actors using British accents. They also establish that Ramius isn’t Russian, instead being Lithuanian. Russian isn’t his native language, and he’s probably speaking it with an accent. Therefore, having a Scottish accent in the midst of the British ones actually fits for his character’s background, as well as further enhancing his maverick status in the Russian military.
Since this is a military movie set during the Cold War, I do have to admit that the complete and total lack of female characters does makes some logistical sense (there’s a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo from Gates McFadden as Ryan’s wife, and a couple of bit parts with a single line of dialogue, but that’s about it). If it had been made now, I might have more of an issue, but it’s a movie from the early 90s, set in the mid 80s, taking place mostly on submarines. The Navy only started allowing women to serve on submarines in the 2010s, after all.
The movie fares better on the diversity front. It’s still overwhelmingly white, but the two African-American cast members are both in positions of great responsibility and competence. James Earl Jones plays Ryan’s boss, Admiral Greer, who trusts him and his opinions completely, in marked contrast to the rest of the military. And Courtney B. Vance (Johnnie Cochran from The People vs. OJ Simpson) plays the sonar operator who’s the only person able to figure out how to track the Red October, and is generally portrayed as the smartest guy in the room every time he appears.
Unlike the other three spy movies I’ve covered (Remo Williams, Undercover Blues and Cloak & Dagger), The Hunt for Red October was a smash success, coming in at number six at the year’s box office in 1990. It also got three Oscar nominations, winning one for Best Sound Editing. However, I get the sense that this movie has been mostly forgotten as the franchise has moved in a much more conventional action movie direction. Harrison Ford would replace Baldwin for the next two installments, and his Ryan is much more of a two-fisted protagonist, single-handedly foiling a terrorist attack and engaging in a fistfight with the villain at the end. Further portrayals, up to and including the Amazon TV show with John Krasinski, have followed the Ford mold rather than the Baldwin one.
Personally, I think that Baldwin’s take on the Jack Ryan character is the superior one. This movie is perhaps the best English-language submarine movie* ever made, as well as being one of the best thrillers of the early 90s.
*The best submarine movie period is clearly the German film Das Boot
-I absolutely love Basil Poledouris’s score for this movie. It uses a full chorus throughout, something that’s relatively uncommon both then and now.
-The way the movie handles the use of language might be one of my favorite “translation conventions” in all of cinema. The movie begins with all of the Red October crew speaking Russian with subtitles. When the political officer is meeting with Ramius to discuss their orders, he begins to read a Bible quotation out loud from Ramius’s wife’s diary. The camera pushes in on his mouth as he reads, until he gets to the word “Armageddon” – a word that is the same in both Russian and English. It then pulls out, and the officer finishes the quote in English. They all continue to speak English for the rest of the film, until the Americans finally come aboard the Red October – at which point everyone is back to speaking Russian again, except for Ramius, who is revealed to actually be fluent in English.