Tuesday, October 25, 2016

HOLLYWOOD vs. THE PENTAGON: Crimson Tide (1995)

                One of my favorite books is Guts and Glory by Lawrence Suid.  The book is about the military’s cooperation with Hollywood.  A theme of the book is that the military is very protective of its image and will not cooperate with movie producers if it feels the movie has even a slightly negative portrayal of the military.  Why does Hollywood care?  Because producers save a lot of money if it has access to military equipment and sites.  This adds verisimilitude to the movie.  But with military cooperation comes strings.  The Pentagon must vet the script and approve it in order to grant access.  Almost always the military asks for changes in the script.  It is up to the producers to decide whether the cooperation is worth the changes.  Common reasons for nixing a script include profanity, which is of course ridiculous because soldiers swear and the public knows this.  Another is when officers are depicted in a negative way.  The military is also concerned with unrealistic procedures.  Obviously it frowns on atrocities being depicted.  Why does the Pentagon give out free stuff?  Because war movies can be good for recruiting.  “Top Gun” is the classic example of this.  That was some major cooperation and boy did it pay off for both sides!  On the other end of the spectrum was “Crimson Tide”.

                “Crimson Tide” was a Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson production.  It was directed by Tony Scott.  This is the same team that made “Top Gun”.  They hoped for the same level of cooperation, but did not get it.  The screenwriter Michael Schiffer did his research and talked to a lot of captains.  The ex-skipper of the USS Alabama, Skip Beard, was the technical adviser.  However, the Navy was upset with several aspects of the submitted script.   As usual, they did not like the profanity, but that was not a deal breaker.  The biggest problem was the mutiny scenario.  The Navy is very protective of its “we’ve never had a mutiny” record.  Some of the procedures were also questioned.  Since the “adjusted” procedures were crucial to building suspense and the mutiny was the key to the plot, the filmmakers refused to make significant changes.  Simpson/Bruckheimer had to use a French submarine and Scott managed to get a helicopter shot of the actual USS Alabama submerging after leaving Pearl Harbor.  The interior scenes were a mock-up on a huge hydraulic gimbal, so no problem there.

                The movie is set in the post-Cold War period, but could easily fit into the Cold War subgenre.  It opens with a title card that proclaims:  “The three most powerful men in the world:  the President, the President of the Russian Republic, and the captain of a U.S. nuclear missile submarine.”  In Chechnya, a Russian ultra-nationalist named Radchenko calls for war with the U.S. because of American sanctions.  He seizes some nuclear missiles and some of the military is in his corner for an attempted overthrow of the government.  Meanwhile, the USS Alabama (a nuclear missile submarine) is welcoming a new executive officer.  Capt. Ramsey (Gene Hackman) has picked Lt. Commander Hunter (Denzel Washington) because of his resume, but it is obvious from the start that there will be the submarine cliché of dysfunctional command.  The two men’s philosophies differ.  Ramsey is basically old school.  He reminisces about the good old days when you just pushed the button without asking why.  Hunter is from the new breed who asks “why?”  He’s an intellectual who says things like:  “In the nuclear world, the true enemy is war itself”.  They remind of the two types of captains that existed in the Royal Navy in Nelson’s time.  Ramsey is the strict disciplinarian whose word is law.  Hunter is the humane leader who takes the crew’s welfare into consideration.  One believes in a kick in the ass, the other in a pat on the back.  It was possible in the Royal Navy to be either and be successful.

                The men are locked in to their archetypes when a fire breaks out on the sub.  Hunter deals with the danger to the crew and Ramsey calls for a drill immediately after the fire to test the crew’s ability to deal with a crisis.  In the ensuing “discussion”, Ramsey makes it clear he will not brook any second-guessing from Hunter.  While this personality clash is taking place, the world is careening towards nuclear war. Radchenko is threatening to use his nukes.  When he begins to fuel them up, the Alabama receives orders to launch its missiles.  Before this can be done they are attacked by a rogue Russian sub and they receive a follow up message that is interrupted by failure of their radio communications.  Hunter insists the message may be a cancel order and refuses to concur with Ramsey’s decision to launch anyhow.  The missiles cannot be launched unless both men agree.  They don’t and hence the suspense.  Keep in mind there is still an enemy sub lurking around.  Queue the clichés of a threatening leak and a trip to “crush depth”.  Throw in a mutiny that devolves into shirts versus skins with weapons in a metal tube underwater with a possible nuclear war starting above.

                “Crimson Tide” is cracking entertainment, but not so great for recruiting.  It’s easy to see why the Navy preferred “Top Gun”, but not so easy to understand why the public preferred it.  This movie is much better than “Top Gun”.  The acting is top notch from a great cast.  Hackman is too old for a sub captain, but age has never been a factor in casting for war movies.  John Wayne in the “Green Berets”, Robert Mitchum in “The Winds of War”, and the list is endless.  He is perfectly cast as the Queegish captain, but he has not lost his marbles.  In fact, one of the strengths of the screenplay is that Ramsey may be right about the launch.  Washington is also well cast, but his Hunter is clearly meant to be in the right.  Another example of Hollywood being liberal, some would say.  It is fun to watch the two great actors as adversaries and in tight spaces at that.  They are given high-level dialogue to chew on.  Some of the pop culture references in the script were written in by an uncredited Quentin Tarantino.  This is the only submarine film with a discussion on Lippizaner stallions.

                The plot does not really reinvent the sub subgenre.  It has several dusty tropes that might have seemed new to a 1995 audience.  Once the enemy sub arrives, the action gets increasingly preposterous as each crisis tops the last.  Hell, there are two takeovers of the boat!  Some of the crew actions make little sense, but it’s all for the greater goal of entertaining the masses.  This also can be said of the plot devices that defy U.S. submarine logic.  For instance, when a boomer would receive launch orders, the exec would have to confirm the order, but would not have to concur with the captain’s decision.  No conflict, no movie – so let’s not quibble about that.  If the movie had stuck to Navy protocol, Hunter would have been shot and the crew would have unanimously backed the captain.  Every captain Schiffer interviewed claimed he would have launched.  That is scary since the second, incomplete message would likely be a change in orders!  Speaking of which, Russian nukes don’t have to fuel up to be ready to launch so no clock-ticking.  And torpedoes don’t need a thousand yards to arm.  And subs have a back-up radio, of course. And anyone who has watched a submarine movie knows they can go well below crush depth.  None of those turned me off.

                The movie may not be factually sound, but it is technically sound.  It was nominated for three technical Oscars.  The interior and underwater effects are excellent.  The interior is authentic and the use of a gimbal gives a feel for being on a sub.  The torpedo scenes are among the best.  Hans Zimmer’s score enhances the action and he won a Grammy.  That is unusual for a score that was not even nominated for an Oscar.

                “Crimson Tide” is among the better submarine movies.  It takes the tired captain versus exec cliché, but is thought-provoking because if you think about it (and I’m not sure we are supposed to), both men could be right and both could be wrong.  When you watch it, cut Ramsey some slack.

GRADE  =  B     

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

LIVE: The Siege of Firebase Gloria

       Note:  Ever since my original, less than complimentary review of “The Siege of Firebase Gloria”, I have gotten considerable grief from fans of the movie.  Some of these complaints have come from people I respect.  This has encouraged me to give the movie a second look.  This relook has taken the form of one of my “Live” reviews, which means it consists mainly of snarky comments as the movie unfolds.  Basically, the less snark, the better the movie.

                Credits include:  “And Albert Popwell as ‘Jones’” -  who the Hell is Albert Popwell and why does he merit a “shoutout”?  //  a crawl gives background to the Tet Offensive and informs us that several American units got cut off – the movie is dedicated to those isolated units;  at least it doesn’t claim it is a true story  //  a Long Range Patrol led by Sgt. Hafner (R. Lee Ermey – a good reason to keep watching no matter what) moves into the village of An Lap – they find enough impaled heads to keep a budget-minded props department busy for a while  //  Hafner’s rotten kid brother from another mother Dinardo (Wings Hauser) befriends the lone survivor – a little boy that he named Pee Wee (since Short Round was already taken);  who needs a dog?  //  On gazing at a pile of kids, Dinardo:  “This is insanity.”  Hafner:  “This is effective.  Charlie has the valley by the balls.”  //  Dinardo discovers a VC cave hideout.  Hafner goes in armed only with a machete and rescues a tortured prisoner.  //  The squad approaches some Vietnamese who they strongly suspect are VC, and yet they bring the wounded grunt and the kid with them.  Naturally, a firefight breaks out with all the enemy killed (none wounded) and none of the Americans get even a scratch.  //  They are picked up by a chopper which proceeds to get shot down, but conveniently crashes in Firebase Gloria.  //  The defenders are all either smoking dope or drinking beer.  Just like “Platoon”!  Hafner and Dinardo meet the CO who happens to be the biggest druggie of them all.  Plus he’s naked.  His interview to avoid being fragged does not go well.  //  Suddenly, Hafner is in charge and kicking ass.  ( I would not be surprised if the same thing did not happen between Ermey and director Trenchard-Smith.)  //  Here comes Sgt. Jones from a one man recon mission.  Hey, Popwell is Clint Eastwood’s go-to black badass from his “Dirty Harry” films!  He did not “feel lucky” in “Dirty Harry” and he does not feel lucky to be in FBG.  I am watching a movie where the arrival of Albert Popwell significantly ups the entertainment value.   //   Hafner visits the aid station and finds that this obscure firebase has a contingent of nurses doing “field exercises” (or at least that is the excuse we are given for having round-eyes in the movie).  //  Speaking of chicks, two Vietnamese girls approach the camp but before they can say “me so horny”, Dinardo fires at them and they blow up.  It’s his idea of safe sex.  //  We meet the VC leader who seems like a worthy opponent.  We can empathize with him because he is being pressured by his bosses to wipe out the Yanks or the NVA are going to take over the war.  Those northern pricks!  His brilliant plan is to channel the WWII Japanese and launch a full frontal attack on the fort.  Only not at night like those pansy Japs.  // Banzai I -  think “Starship Troopers”, but with more theatrical deaths;  not a single soldier changes clips (in the entire movie);  the VC retreat after enough have been killed to sate the audience  //  After the battle, Dinardo sends some men out to finish off the wounded – not that there are many of them.  This must be the scene that the movie’s supporters claim makes the movie grittily realistic.  And some would say implies that American soldiers routinely committed atrocities and war crimes.  //  In a similar vein, Dinardo tortures a prisoner for information.  // Dinardo, Short Wave, and Murphy infiltrate the enemy camp at night to position some Claymores (without wires).  (Hey R. Lee, how about a “Mail Call” segment on how a Claymore works?)  These blow up later for some unexplainable reason other than the movie needed some more explosions.  //  Murphy talks about his upcoming nuptuals and Short Wave has only 17 days left in country.  I wonder if the movie will have a post script where Short Wave attends the wedding?  And Dinardo gives away the bride.  //  Banzai II  -  still daytime;  Dinardo shoots from the hip and uses a machete;  Hafner uses his bayonet;  some blood, but limited number of squibs so most deaths are clean;  the firebase is small and yet the Americans keep dropping back to their next line of defense – if this keeps up, the grunts will be defending on the outside of the wire  //  film throws in a hot shot chopper pilot named Moran (Gary Hershberger – the poor man’s Gary Busey) who gets the movie’s cheesiest lines besides the usual “yee has” and “shit yeahs”;  this character also gives the movie the chance to rain down death from above  //  Hafner and Dinardo discuss the war;  Dinardo:  “Fucking war.  They call it a police action.”  Hafner points out that the term refers to the Korean War – just kidding.  Hafner:  “This has dick to do with dinks.”  (how can you hate a movie with a line like that?)   I hope to remember that line instead of Hauser’s painful portrayal of a Marine tormented by the death of his brother.  I seriously consider shooting myself in the foot to get out of this scene.  //  While they are expostulating, the dinks sneak into the camp and behead a machine gun crew (these are the same guys who insist on daylight frontal attacks).  Hafner walks around with two severed heads and gives a speech.  (Just like when R. Lee would wake up his kids at home.)  //  Banzai III -  the VC leader leads this assault so he can have a duel with Hafner;  when the VC break into the aid station, the head nurse machine guns several (so much for pacifism!);  the VC commander shoots Dinardo as he rescues/kidnaps Pee Wee;  Dinardo gets his big death scene and Hafner gets to send him off like a man and ahead of a court-martial for war crimes  //  Pee Wee ends up with his own people instead of a psychotic American – boo!

ANALYSIS:  Trenchard-Smith went on to direct “Leprechaun 3 and 4” as well as James Belushi in “Sahara”.  Speaking of Belushi, the acting in “Firebase Gloria” is James Belushi-esque.  Only Ermey (and Popwell, of course) don’t deserve to be fragged.  Ermey, who apparently wrote the screenplay, hogged all the good lines for himself.  He plays himself and makes sure it’s not his character that sets up the Claymores.  Without him, the movie would not be the great Vietnam War movie that it is (according to its fans).  Hauser, who is inexplicably top-billed, acts like the kind of guy that would go on to write “Uncommon Valor”. But let’s face it, no one watches this movie for the acting or the plot or the proper use of weapons.  They watch it because it is combat porn.  And there are three big set piece battles.  Sure, they are redundant, but who can get enough of gook slaughtering?


Monday, October 10, 2016

CRACKER? Gray Lady Down (1978)

                “Gray Lady Down” was an addition to the venerable submarine subgenre of war movies.  It was based on the novel by David Lavalee entitled Event 1000.  That title refers to U.S. Navy terminology for a rescue of a sunken submarine’s crew.  It was directed by David Greene (“Friendly Fire”).  It attempted to tap in to the craze for disaster films in the 1970s, but barely made a blip at the box office.  The movie stars Charleston Heston sporting his Moses beard.  The production got cooperation from the Navy and the Department of Defense.  The USS Trout was loaned to stand in for the movies USS Nautilus.  Footage and a full-scale model were provided by “Ice Station Zebra”.

                It’s Commander Blanchard’s (Heston) last cruise before a desk job.  Should be a piece of cake, right?  On a foggy night, the sub is running on the surface when they encounter a Russian freighter that lacks radar.  Since the Nautilus does have radar, you would think it could easily avoid a freighter.  However, what would be entertaining about that?  The resulting collision tears a giant hole in the engine room and the sub goes down in deep water.  Well below crush depth, of course.  The American-built sub withstands the pressure, but settles precariously on a ledge.  The angle makes rescue by a DSRV (Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle) problematical.  The DSRV goes down and it looks like the rescue will go off without a hitch until a “gravity slide” covers the escape hatch.  Complications, complications.  What we need here is an iconoclastic genius!  Keith Carradine - enter stage right.  Carradine plays Lt. Gates.  Gates commands an experimental mini-sub named after him.  It’s called the Snark.  Fresca product placement!  Leaks, mechanical breakdowns, command dysfunction, etc. ensue.  The dominoes elicit the following line from Heston:  “I’m beginning to feel like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.”  (A line recycled probably from the uncut version of “The Ten Commandments”.)  Somehow the movie manages to throw in an underwater explosion.  If you have seen any disaster movies, you know there will be survivors and some who sacrifice so there will be.  Did you think the Navy cooperated with a movie that showed its DSRV as a failure? Do you think recruitment to the submarine service would be improved by having the crew perish?  Cooperation comes with some script vetting, after all.

                “Gray Lady Down” is not as bad as you would expect.  It is middle of the road for the subgenre.  And, by the way, I’m not sure it really is a war movie.  Unless you want to believe my conspiracy theory that the Soviet freighter meant to sink our sub.  (Or how about this one?  Commander Blanchard purposely disregarded his radar in order to provoke World War III so he would be able to avoid the desk job.)  Regardless, it certainly is a submarine movie.  This is proved by the escalating series of crises common to this subgenre.  You get many of the greatest hits -  flooding compartments, lack of communication, fear of crushing, and so forth.  All of this drama is competently performed.  The cast is fine.  The recognizable stars are strong, especially Carradine.  His character is stock, but he brings a twinkle to it.  He balances Heston’s pomposity.  I have to admit that Heston does not chew the scenery as a much as usual.  However, the supporting cast is weak.  It includes Christopher Reeve in his film debut.  (You know you are in trouble if Moses and Superman can’t save you.)  The special effects are those of a made-for-TV movie.  But at least they are not laughable.  The music also reminds of a TV movie.

                Will “Gray Lady Down” crack my 100 Best War Movies list?  Obviously not.  But it is a fairly entertaining movie. 

GRADE  =  C      

Sunday, October 2, 2016

WORTHY SEQUEL? Breakthrough (1979)


            “Breakthrough” is a sequel to the famed “Cross of Iron” which means it continues the adventures of one of the great war movie characters – Sgt. Steiner of the German Army.  The original, directed by Sam Peckinpah, is one of the great war movies and has a cult following.  It certainly called for a sequel – directed by Peckinpah and starring the perfectly cast James Coburn.  The fact that the sequel has neither of them is a major red flag.  Coburn was set to star but backed out at the last minute.  I assume he finally got around to reading the script.  His replacement was a ridiculously too old Richard Burton.  Burton was 53 years old and looked at least ten years older than that.  His heart was not in the project and his drinking was a problem.  Sticking with the decision to hire old has-been actors, the producers tabbed three other “Longest Day” veterans – Robert Mitchum, Rod Steiger, and Curt Jurgens.  This quartet has the dubious distinction of appearing in one of the great war movies and one of the worst.   Director Andrew McLaglen sandwiched this movie between “The Wild Geese” and “The Sea Wolves” so it is obvious he had a fetish for old stars embarrassing themselves in action roles.

            The movie opens in May, 1944 which would be a few months after the events in “Cross of Iron”.  So now we know Steiner survived the climactic fight.  And so did his nemesis Capt. Stransky (Helmut Griem) who is still a thorn in his side.  The movie seems to start off right with a scene with plenty of action, however it does not take long to silliness to set in.  Steiner is sent to destroy a railroad tunnel.  When his men peer in to see the light at the end, it turns out to be a T-34.  Although he takes out the tank, Steiner perplexingly does not blow up the tunnel and follows this up with a confrontation with Stransky.  Steiner once again can’t play nice with generals and gets himself court-martialed.  The punishment is a head-scratching two week leave in Paris!  While there, Steiner steals Stransky’s girl.  I’m not making this up, people. Just as our hero is celebrating his bizarre punishment of being shipped from the Eastern Front, the D-Day invasion occurs.  Look out Allies, Steiner’s band of misfits has joined him and they are assigned the defense of a French village.  This is a seventies war movie, so we need a political subplot of Steiner getting involved with his Hitler-conspiratorial Gen. Hoffman’s (Jurgens) attempt to negotiate surrender of his forces.  The negotiation involves a Col. Rogers (Mitchum) and Gen. Webster (Steiger).  They spend the first half hour complaining about their arthritis.  Just kidding.  Luckily the talking does not prevent the big set piece battle for the village.  Unluckily, there is a battle for the village.  This scene defies polite description.  Make sure you have been drinking heavily by the time you reach this stage of the movie (if you make it this far).  Richard Burton was.

            How do you tarnish a great movie and character?  See this movie.  Thankfully, few did.  It is horrendous.  The acting is wooden. Or should I say geriaratric?  Burton is not even the worst performer.  Just the most disinterested.  Steiger chews the scenery as much as his false teeth will allow.  The dialogue is laughable.  The plot is inane.  The action is ridiculous.  This is one of the worst war movies ever made and one of the most disappointing.

NOTE:  Check out that poster.  The artist does not even bother to make the main stars look younger!  But he does manage to get two women in separate clenches.  Kudos!