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In the dark and deep depths of the world’s turbulent seas, a secret game of cat and mouse is being played by men with terrible power to destroy. In 1984, as the bitter rivalry between the United States and Russia is fought in words above the sea, beneath the waves, control of the ocean is waged in silent deadly conflict. Soviet submarine Captain First Rank Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) is a veteran of these squabbles and has such, been given command of a new weapon in the Russian fleet, a Typhoon-class nuclear submarine called the Red October, equipped with a special caterpillar drive propulsion system that straight up treats sonar detection likes it’s a fold-up map in a world run on GPS. When it’s engaged, it runs silent. Ordered to participate in a round of war games with another Russian submarine to tests the system, Ramius instead secretly kills his political officer and tells the crew they are heading to the US East coast to conduct missile tests with promises of “warm companionship” in Havana when it’s over. Good motivation. They begin to sing.
Meanwhile, over at C.I.A. Headquarters, analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) has got some interesting pictures to show Vice Admiral James Greer (James Earl Jones), CIA Deputy Director of Intelligence. A British agent managed to click a few pics of the new Russian Typhoon class submarine while still in dry dock and the images reveal a set of curious doors running up and down the sides of the ship. Jack shows them to nearby specialist Skip Tyler (Jeffrey Jones) who is building a small rescue sub that can attach to any submersible vessel. He sees the doors and suspects right away that the enemy have gone and built themselves a caterpillar drive propulsions system in order to run in total silence.
Just about the same time that this is happening, a top Soviet official receives a letter from Ramius, sent before taking command of the massive submarine. Whatever the letter said, it must have been dire because next thing you know, the whole of the Russian Atlantic fleet is fired up and giving chase. They are given specific orders: Sink the submarine. Well, the U.S. gets wind of the plot, and the commanders think there might be a rogue captain sailing the seas, intent on reaching U.S. shores and raining hellfire on the Eastern seaboard. Seems plausible. But Ryan has another idea. Because it’s the anniversary of Ramius’ wife’s death, and because of his political connections and lack of family, he thinks this is exactly the opposite of an attack. Ramius is defecting. U.S. commanders debate, but then decide to give Ryan three days to test his theory. He must make contact with Ramius and be sure of his plan. So now both the Soviet Navy and a lone C.I.A. analyst take to the sea, all ordered to hunt for Red October.
Directed by John McTiernan and based on the book by Tom Clancy, this political military thriller still feels relevant even after so many years separated from the Cold War that fostered it. While it is well-acted, especially by supporting players Scott Glenn, Tim Curry, Courtney B. Vance and Stellan Skarsgård, it is McTiernan’s inventive and wonderfully stylistic direction that keeps this one a notch above, such as moving the camera in unnatural ways that make us feel as if we are aboard a submarine. On dry land as well, McTiernan is masterfully in control of the pace, such as when Jack first meets Admiral Greer in his office with both men engaged in phatic conversation, eager to proceed. The scene is an intriguing piece to watch as the camera eases about the room with dialogue building, ending with a beautifully framed shot of Ryan on the sofa talking about his child’s stuffed bear. There’s a powerful sense of realism to the experience that, even if it is not, feels authentic, from the military and techno-jargon famous in Clancy’s work to the actors themselves, despite some awkward (and unnecessary) Russian accents. The story is inventive and continually shifting, intelligently written and crackling with suspense. The complex plot is thick with twists but never so out of sorts that audiences are lost at sea, so to speak. That’s a testament to McTiernan and the brilliant screenplay, combining sharp volleys of smart dialogue with fast-paced action that are engaging and purposeful. Tense, slickly produced and highly satisfying, this is a hunt worth taking.
Scene Setup: It’s decided that in order to know Ramius’s real intention, contact must be made. While plans are being carried out to destroy the massive submarine, a clandestine operation is also in effective, delivering Jack Ryan to the U.S.S. Dallas, an American submarine that has been able to track the Red October despite its cunning propulsion system, this thanks to a veteran sonar operator who’s got himself an ear for things most can’t hear. (Apparently listening to classical music makes tracing underwater sound signatures all the more easy.) After a wildly dangerous maneuver involving a helicopter, it’s longline, and an electrical storm, Ryan boards the Dallas with some news for its captain: Belay the orders received by command to destroy Red October and instead allow him to make contact with the Russian sub and make clear Ramius’s intent. This, while the Dallas is diving to approach the enemy, filling its torpedo tubes, and preparing to engage.
The Scene: (Timestamp 1:30:00) The bridge of the Dallas is a whirlwind of activity as orders are being barked and men carry them out. A drenched Jack Ryan in on deck, a towel around his neck, desperately trying to get Captain Mancuso (Glenn) to hear him out. Mancuso asks his plotting officer for an ETA on interception. Four minutes. Mancuso gives Ryan two to talk. Ryan quickly tells Mancuso that everything happening on the surface makes sense, that of course his orders are to destroy a nuclear submarine captained by a rogue aiming to launch missiles. But it’s all a ploy, a deception meant to keep the sailors on the Red October unaware that the captain is defecting. That captain needs the help of the US navy and this one chance, here with the Dallas, is it. Mancuso isn’t a fool. He’s a trained military officer in charge of a powerful nuclear submarine following orders from his commanders. But he’s also sensible and listens well to those who advise him. He’s demonstrated this a number of times. Ryan is a himself a decorated naval officer and has a convincing argument, but there can be no chances taken. He orders Chief Watson (Larry Ferguson) to the bridge, with his sidearm.
From there, Ryan tells Mancuso that he knows Ramius so well that the Russian captain will make a “Crazy Ivan” soon, and will turn starboard. We learn that a “Crazy Ivan” is when a Russian submarine captain suddenly spins his boat around to check behind him. Sure enough, just as jack predicted, Ramius whips his sub about and does it to starboard. Mancuso is impressed just enough to give Ryan a chance. Problem is, it left the Dallas open for discovery and now the Russians know they are being followed. The two subs rise to the surface, and using morse code through periscopes, the captains strike a deal.
The scene has an urgency that punctuates the story line well yet adds a layer of conflict that is unexpected in pitting Ryan against Mancuso. Captain Mancuso is a respected leader, that is obvious in his relationships with the crew. He demands of them their best and they deliver. Case in point, Jonesy the sonar operator’s diligence in finding and tracking the caterpillar drive. His hard work is noted but also expected. Here though, Mancuso establishes himself as central player in the game, which is what we’ve been waiting for. For too long, he’s been (wisely) in the peripheral, but now we realize that this plan of Ryan’s cannot succeed without Mancuso. Ramius understood from the beginning that in order for his plan to work, he needn’t worry about Moscow or even the entirety of the Russian fleet. He knows their tactics. His concern is the Americans and the possibility of facing a “buckaroo.” When he says just that, the film cuts to Ryan, and we’re sure he isn’t. But with Mancuso, how confident can we be? The answer to that isn’t answered until now.
Captain Mancuso is the United States. He represents the authority, the might and more importantly, the sensibility needed to gather information, assess it, make judgments and act on it in this story. His two-teir conversation between Jack and his boat chiefs as they prime the sub for battle is prime example of this. Watch closely as Mancuso and Ryan begin this debate. They are standing over the map of the very sea they are in, like the war machines they populate, preparing for a fight. They lean in closely to each other, eye-to-eye in a classic blink-first-and-you-lose stand off. As the two subs near each other, a decision must be made. Somebody must blink.
Mancuso then makes for the film’s most important moment. As the two men remain at odds, with Mancuso tightly pulled between his orders and the compelling story Jack Ryan tells, Ramius pulls the second “Crazy Ivan,” turing starboard, just as Ryan predicted. As we learned earlier, the only way to remain undetected while the huge Russian boat turned was to go “All stop” and shut down the props. Timing is critical. Wait too long and your sunk, figuratively and literally (potentially). On the first “Crazy Ivan,” Captain Mancuso called the order in time and his ship went unseen. Now, as he stares down Ryan in the conn of his boat, hearing the urgent reports that Ramius is turning, he hesitates. Essentially, he blinks. Or does he?
Instead of giving the “All stop” order, which would render the boat silent, Mancuso instead says, “All back full,” which reverses the engines causing cavitation (propeller bubbles), sending unmistakably identifiable sounds waves straight to the approaching Russian submarine. The order is questioned and asked to be repeated. “All back full” it is. Almost immediately, Ramius knows he’s not alone.
By giving this order, Mancuso allows his boat to be detected and hence, initiating either the communication Jack is hoping for or an outright torpedo battle, which he is fully ready to start. He further puts the entirety of the mission on his shoulders, giving an order that could, under investigation if it were warranted, ruin him. It reveals a cunning commander is at the helm of the USS Dallas and confirms our suspicions that Captain Mancuso has a larger role to play in the game.
Director: John McTiernan
Writers: Tom Clancy (novel), Larry Ferguson (screenplay)
Stars: Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Scott Glenn