The Hunt for Red October (1990) has an amusing backstory: originally a Cold War story, then seemingly out of date, until it was re-positioned as an historical piece, even if only set ten years prior. The original actor for the part of Ramius broke his leg and had to be replaced. The film was aided by the United States Navy, who viewed as the naval version of Top Gun. The John Clancy novel, although altered in minor ways, served as a strong starting point, which bolstered by good casting, naval cooperation, and John McTiernan’s direction, resulted in a damn good movie. Now, the reason I like the film so much is that it presents a thriller without overdoing it on menace, cliché, or other elements that tend to slow films like this down. This, coupled with an usual hero’s arc for the main character, allows for a relaxing thrill of an afternoon.
To begin, the character of Jack Ryan, played here by Alec Baldwin, is shown as a CIA analyst who has never been in the field, but is brilliant at military analysis. He puts together the plot to defect of Marcko Ramius, played by Sean Connery, as well as the necessary corollary ideas, and eventually succeeds in winning over the various military and intelligence officers to eventually aid Ramius in his defection. The flip side of the plot, the USSR’s attempts to stop Ramius, are shown through political maneuvers, as well as a dedicated submarine commander (a pre-Thor and Pirates of the Caribbean Stellan Skarsgard) fanatically trying to stop him. Jack Ryan is very green, inexperienced, and is shown as being scared of going into the field; more than once, he is heard saying to himself, “next time, Jack, write a goddamn memo!” The film ends with him killing an undercover GRU (Soviet intelligence) agent who is hell bent on self-destroying the ship, in what is effectively cold blood; it is something that is unimaginable at the start of the film, but that the film works towards; he goes from being naïve to more of the James Bond-type, albeit in a more realistic sense. It is this idea, not of the trained spy, nor battle-hardened solider, but a young analyst, that transforms the Cold War thriller into a Jack Ryan origin story; every other character is experienced, and as Ryan earns his stripes, culminating in his success aboard the Red October, both diplomatically and militarily, the film builds momentum which pays off with two quiet scenes at the end that show the humanity of the two lead characters.
The plot is well written, something that always seems to be an issue in military thrillers. The set up is taken care of pretty early, with the American and Soviet plotlines hinting at what is really going on before we realize that Ryan is correct in the beginning of act two. Act two is about Ryan proving his theories as he gets into position to work out what he can. Act three is about survival and completing the mission. Never once is the larger context forgotten, nor are the stakes ever lowered. The pacing is good, with moments of tension played out just long enough that you appreciate the moment, before moving on and letting the story progress.
Despite the fact that there are at least 18 major and substantial supporting parts, it is not hard to keep track of who is who, largely because characters, with the exception of Ryan and Admiral Greer, are compartmentalized so that they stay in one place. McTiernan, whose other notable works include the first and third Die Hard entries, is not one to waste time; every character serves a purpose, every scene, every action, every line all has a reason for being there; great example: the engineer aboard the Red October smokes, Ryan doesn’t, and both are shown with those attitudes repeatedly; Ryan asks for a cigarette and a light from the engineer as part of the aforementioned diplomatic touch, which also endears him a little to the Soviets when he starts coughing, and they realize he’s trying to establish a friendly relationship. This action contrasts with the look of Capt. Mancuso (Scott Glenn), who is rough and unsure of Soviet intentions. In the end, it sets off a chain of events that leads to the Red October, USS Dallas (Mancuso’s submarine), and Admiral Greer destroying the Alfa-class sub captained by Skarsgard’s character, and fooling the Soviets into believing the Red October was destroyed.
The cast is brilliant, and if you consumed pop culture in the 90’s and 2000’s, you will recognize a lot of actors. The three key actors are Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, and Scott Glenn, with Richard Jordan, Courtney B. Vance, Stellan Skarsgard, and Sam Neil all playing primary secondary parts; the rest of the cast is impressive, and you can tell that McTiernan let them play the characters naturally, thus resulting in performances which are relaxed and not forced, even during moments of high tension. Tim Curry’s role as Red October’s chief medical officer is a great example; he has some of the more unpleasant sounding dialogue (largely because there is no way of saying it any other way, and you need those lines in the film no matter what), but it works because he is in the scene, not playing the scene. The ability of the cast to present the story so well actually makes the story easier to follow; it proves how well multiple intertwining plotlines can work when the screenplay is solid and the acting is well-done.
The film succeeds for many reasons, but maybe the fact that it does demonstrate, even in a post-Cold War, post-9/11 climate that enemies can become allies in the most unlikely of circumstances is why I like it best. You see fanaticism versus logic and reason; blind ideology versus careful thought; and it presents us with the idea that wars can and will happen, but we should always investigate to see if there is another way.
Thanks for reading. See you next time.