“The Hunt for Red October” was based on Tom Clancy’s debut novel about a rogue Soviet sub captain who attempts to defect to the West. The book was a bestseller and Hollywood was interested. The U.S. Navy was interested in cooperating due to the desire to have a boost to submarine recruitment similar to the effect “Top Gun” had on naval aviation. The Navy vetted the script and was pleased. It allowed inspection of the non-classified sections of American subs so the production could create realistic interior sets on soundstages on gimbals for pitch and roll. For the first time, the USN allowed the filming of a sub in dock. For exterior shots, the production built a 500-foot mock-up that could submerge and surface. The movie was directed by John McTiernan who was famous for action films like “Die Hard”. This was his only war movie. “The Hunt for Red October” was a big hit.
The movie is set in the Cold War before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The movie opens with a title card informing the audience that there was an incident in 1984 where a Soviet sub sank in the Atlantic due to a radiation problem. Very suspicious, right? “But according to repeated statements by both Soviet and American government nothing of what you are about to see actually happened.” Wink, wink. Now that the seed is planted, we learn that there is a Soviet Typhoon class ballistic missile submarine captain who wants to defect to the West and bring his boat with him. The rest of the officers are on board and if they aren’t, Capt. Ramius (Sean Connery) will take care of them Ninja style. A CIA analyst named Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) has discovered that the Red October has a revolutionary propulsion system called a “caterpillar drive” that makes the boat very difficult to be picked up by passive sonar (which is basically the ability of another sub to hear the sub when they are both under water). Coincidentally, the USS Dallas (an attack submarine) is on duty monitoring Soviet subs in the Atlantic. It’s ace sonar operator Jones (Courtney Vance) picks up the Soviet boat and then loses it when the caterpillar drive is initiated. Ryan connects the dots and convinces the CIA that the reason why the Soviet navy has sallied in large numbers is to track down the Red October before it can defect. We need to make contact with Ramius and facilitate his gifting this amazing technology. Since its your crazy theory, you can do the contacting, Mr. CIA analyst. Meanwhile the entire Soviet navy is determined to sink its ship. In particular, one of Ramius’ proteges is chasing him in an attack sub called the V.K. Konovalov. It’s like “Fast and Furious” underwater. The movie would have been better titled “The Chase of Red October” as the boat is actually easy to find.
“The Hunt for Red October” is an entertaining rendering of a popular novel. It has been a long time since I read the book, but as good as it was, the movie is better. The plot makes clearer the motivation of Ramius. The book emphasized the death of Ramius’ wife due to a corrupt system. Sean Connery insisted in clearer motivation so John Milius was brought in to write dialogue where Ramius speaks about having an impact on the Cold War. He is a “good Russian”. Connery also insisted that the movie make it clear that the incident is occurring before the Gorbachev era. Once the motivation and goal is firmed up, the movie is very manipulative to get to the desired conclusion. Not that that is particularly unusual for a Hollywood action movie. You decide on the outcome and then arrange the dots to get there in as exciting a manner as possible. And plausibility be damned. I already mentioned “Fast and Furious” as a good example.
The connecting of the dots is competently done by an outstanding cast. Alec Baldwin was the original Jack Ryan and he does a good job in portraying him as a reluctant hero. An egg-head who was also a Marine so it is fairly believable that he can go from policy wonk to action hero. Scott Glenn is well-cast as the captain of the USS Dallas. The Navy may have been hoping for a “Top Gun” type recruiting result, but the sailors are not mavericks. Glenn went on board the USS Houston and was allowed to parrot orders to get a feel for the captaincy of a sub. Mancuso is not a Captain Queeg. In fact, he even listens to a CIA analyst at the risk of his boat and its crew. This is the modern Navy, young men. But the key recruiting bait is Sonar Operator Jones. Hey potential African-American submariners, you can now be a Sonar Operator instead of a cook in today’s silent service. (And in just a few years with “Crimson Tide”, you could actually become an executive officer.) Not only can you be a sonar expert, but you can go aboard a Soviet sub with a select group even though the enemy sub already has a sonar operator. (But they did not have a black guy.) Sean Connery is solid especially after he no longer has to fake a Russian accent. He is so good you forget he plays a traitor and murderer.
The movie is refreshingly free of submarine movie clichés. It does have the claustrophobic setting. The sets are authentic looking. The Navy cooperated with the mise-en-scene for the Dallas and set designers winged it with the Red October by putting in lots of dials, buttons, and assorted gizmos. The underwater shots are excellent, but clearly CGI. This is an improvement over models, however. The special effects are good and unfortunately encourage some silly pot developments, as I will point out below. The sound effects are outstanding as evidenced by the film’s lone Academy Award for Sound Editing. Speaking of sound, the soundtrack is one of the best for a war movie.
So, it’s a good movie then? Yes, but it is a bad war movie. Plot devices that have the average viewers on the edge of their seats, have hard-core war movie lovers pulling their hair. There is much that is ridiculous in this movie. Let me name a few things that I found laughable. Ryan is an unheralded CIA analyst and yet he convinces the head of the CIA and a submarine captain to take action on his theories even though he presents no convincing evidence. Although Ramius is meant to be a positive character, he is certifiably insane if you look at some of the things he does. He sends a letter to the head of the Soviet Navy telling of his intentions, which makes his goal infinitely more difficult. This was a plot requirement, obviously. By the way, he made this decision without consulting his fellow mutineers. He traverses an underwater twisting cavern at a recklessly high speed. The movie is also chock full of implausibilities - all of which propel the narrative. It is an incredibly small ocean as three submarines keep running into each other. Well, not literally running into each other, but coming within a whisker of each other. They are so close that torpedoes don’t have time to arm themselves! The final showdown between the Red October and the Konovalov strains credulity for anyone familiar with how subs actually fight. This is intercut with an equally ridiculous showdown between Ryan and a patriotic Soviet (and that’s exactly what he is!). There’s more, but I won’t bore you with the details. You may now yell “it’s just a movie, for Christ’s sake!” It is just a movie, but this blog reviews war movies. It is definitely a war movie so it should be held to a higher standard than “Die Hard”. And the technical adviser should also be held to a higher standard.
Will it crack my 100 Best War Movies? No. In fact, although there is a fairly large submarine subgenre, few are well done. “Das Boot” stands out because its competitors are weak. It is hard to make a realistic submarine movie, although the dynamics are rife for drama. Those dynamics tend to be cliched. One thing about “Hunt” is it avoids the tropes of the subgenre, but it substitutes the tropes of the action genre. Enjoy.
GRADE = C