Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

The Hunt for Red October Film Review

I once wrote the following, and it still applies: “Here we go, again. It is another September 30th. It seems that ever since I became a parent, approaching 14 16 years, now (that’s 98 112 in dog years), I’ve become acutely aware of this date. Today is the eve of what I like to refer as The Slide. That is, the cosmic phenomenon of the beginning of the end for whatever year you or I happen to be living through. You know the one where the space/time continuum accelerates to the point that the year is suddenly over. And, all of those things that happen between now and the end of the Rose Parade are just a blur. A fleeting memory. October 1st… January 2nd.” So I say once again, I’m too old for this…

With that in mind, it is time once more for the blogger otherwise known as the Scientist Gone Wordy and I to add another of our duo posts in the series we started in the technological dark ages that was 2010. For this one, we re-enter the adrenaline rush realm, this time with a distinct tinge of geekdom, as we examine the novel/film pairing of a noteworthy and groundbreaking techno-thriller. As usual, the wordy one will look at the text of a well-known novel later adapted to film, which I will review. In this case, she’ll be looking at a page-turner from the recognizable span of time that was the Decade of Excess, The Hunt for Red October. The 1984 source novel by Tom Clancy also served the film adaptation of the same name later in 1990. Rachel’s book review can be found here:

The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy

A brief synopsis of the film: As the Cold War goes through what will be its last chilly vestiges in the 80s, a Typhoon-class Soviet submarine sets on its maiden voyage into the Atlantic. Onboard is the accomplished Captain Marko Ramius and a super-secret propulsion system that makes the missile boat, Red October, silent and invisible to its U.S./NATO adversaries. Unknown to the Russian Navy, however, is the fact that Ramius is planning on defecting to the United States, and bringing the Red October with him. Also jetting across the same ocean is historian Jack Ryan, currently an analyst for the CIA. He brings British intelligence and questions to Washington concerning the new Soviet boat. Ryan, having worked up the bio on Ramius, will be the only one who can put together what is really going on once the Soviet military hierarchy learns of the defection and sets out to hunt down and kill their new submarine. The larger potential threat all this poses, to both sides, is the crux of the story.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film could be revealed in this review]

“The hard part about playing chicken is knowin’ when to flinch.”

1990’s The Hunt for Red October film surely was a pleasant surprise for Paramount Studios when it debuted, especially given the release date execs stuck it with. I mean, March, typically, is not exactly a month loaded with movie blockbusters, especially in the post-Jaws (1975) summer action-thriller film era. As well, there’s a reason Tom Clancy’s début ’84 bestseller military-techno-thriller of a novel took as long as it did for film adaptation. The movie-going public wasn’t exactly clamoring for more ‘submarine’ films (itself a sub-genre of the ‘war’ film). That this film succeeded, wildly at that, despite the less-than-confident scheduling, was testament to the film’s direction, one superb cast, and perhaps more importantly, one smart screenwriting endeavor. That alone paid off the implied gambit this motion picture conversion was and made the film worth it all.

Clancy’s novel was the next plateau in the thriller genre of fiction, and a clearly American one, at that. Readers of such (and that included the then President Reagan) could spot the familiar fraternal influences from famed British authors Alister MacLean (The Guns of Navarone), Jack Higgins (The Eagle Has Landed) and Frederick Forsyth (The Day of The Jackal). Clancy’s take, though, swayed more toward the technological (something really beginning to impact both sides of the Iron Curtain during that time). Prefaced, surely, by the works from his like-minded U.S. author-in-arms, Michael Crichton (The Andromeda Strain). The public, weary from post-Vietnam and economic recession, and the spiritual doldrums that came from them, found a positive, escapist fare with his tightly packed, plot-driven tale about the real life tech war being waged below the oceanic surface.

Plus, the high-tech, cat-and-mouse story of Ramius (along with his sub) defecting was an intriguing concept few were offering in suspense and action fare. The story’s motivation for the betrayal, the death of the captain’s wife and the fear of his own government’s use of the new sub as a ‘first strike’ weapon, provided a potent mix of the personal and ideological in both novel and film. The filmmakers, notably director John McTiernan and screenwriters Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart, worked to keep the essence intact in their cinematic translation from the source material. But chiefly, the reason it proved successful was they dispensed with enough of the tech/political/espionage detail that saturated the book, a facet that made the novel a computer geek/political wonk’s wet dream. Their treatment built a film that was much more reachable by a wider audience without dumbing it down for them. Here, they exceeded beyond expectations, in my opinion.

“Conn, aye. All right, Ryan, we just unzipped our fly. Mr. Thompson! Open the outer doors, firing point procedures. Now if that bastard so much as twitches, I’m going to blow him straight to Mars.”

That’s not to say they forgot about the key ingredients of what it is to be an action movie. Far from it. All the artifacts and hardware audiences by now fully expected from a military-based thriller, especially after the mega-successful Top Gun in ’86 (see my look at that one), were there. The fact that the Dept. of Defense lent a carrier, ships, naval aircraft, and an attack sub toward this production is on full display in the film. It showed the Pentagon thought they’d get the same PR and recruitment after-effects as TG afforded them years before (no doubt they probably did). Plus, the visual special effects of the time still hold up remarkably well (now 21 years later), even if the small uses of early CGI don’t quite anymore. Take the film’s nice salute to the iconic Star Wars sequence (that of a Star Destroyer thundering overhead at the onset) when the U.S.S. Dallas is introduced on-screen. Simply awesome on a big, wide movie screen. It’s still fondly remembered by the movie’s fans [see Naomi, I didn’t forget about our B’con talk regarding this ;-)].

The cast, too, went above and beyond, and that’s more clear looking back at this decades later, I think. I mean, when wasn’t Sean Connery not been in a big, expensive production during this period? One that fully expected his presence to carry a headline film. He’s certainly been in enough of them, and with good cause. His strength and charisma (he’s still my favorite OO7, btw) delivered fully and had the presumed impact in the film. Yet, many forget the other actors in their roles (both large and small), fulfilled just as much, I believe. From a young Alec Baldwin (who shows why Paramount thought they had an oncoming star and franchise with him in this film) in his magnetic performance, to the cadre of multi-national veterans. Sam Neill, Richard Jordan, Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, Joss Ackland, Courtney Vance and Stellan Skarsgård didn’t take back seats to anyone when onscreen. Christ, even a former-Senator and my favorite Chief Medical Officer from Star Trek, Fred Dalton Thompson and Gates McFadden, got into the act to good effect. It was a rare, stellar troupe of performers who did yeoman work in a action-thriller that rose above the genre.

Helicopter Pilot: “Fuel status says we turn back now.”
Jack Ryan: “Wait a minute. Fuel status? You have a reserve, don’t you?”
Helicopter Pilot: “Yes, sir. I’ve got a ten minute reserve… but I’m not allowed to invade that except in time of war.”
Jack Ryan: “Listen, mister, if you don’t get me on board that goddamn submarine, that just might be what you’ll have! You got me? Now you have ten more minutes’ worth of fuel, we stay here ten more minutes!”

Let’s also face what’s readily apparent to those who’ve read the novel and seen the film adaptation. Tom Clancy’s strength was always his ability to mold history, techno-military jargon and weaponry, along with political intrigue, into suspenseful plots. It was rarely the quality of his prose or character dialogue on the page that made him a popular novelist. This is where writers Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart (and the uncredited work of John Milius) really shined in The Hunt for Red October‘s film treatment. There is a palpable snap to just about anyone that has lines in the movie. The differentiation it has on the author’s characters (as well as the glee the actors showed in delivering them), by the very words they utter on-screen, really gives the film a personable leg up on the novel (after I re-read/re-watched both). Case in point, when Ramius is throwing cold water on his officers as they complain about his decision to leave a revealing letter (one telling the Russian Navy of their defection) with the following retort:

“When he reached the New World, Cortez burned his ships. As a result his men were well motivated.”

Nowhere is that line, or reference, in the book (which really smacks of Milius’ writing, btw). As well, Connery’s panache with those words is way above anything Clancy ever had going in text for his seagoing Lithuanian renegade. Even so, it is precisely because the writers held to the spirit, instead of the letter of the novel (something I once heard Clancy had complained about) that allowed them to trim and improve on the original story’s hefty overhead. Not to mention, they were unafraid to interject some needed humor to the goings-on. Certainly, it made for many more triumphant moments in the film, enough that you could easily ignore the few parts that don’t work so well (don’t get me started when the crew starts singing). Still, THFRO proved instrumental to the submarine movies spurred on by its success. Some were good and effective thrillers (U-571, Hostile Waters, Below), while others less so (Crimson Tide, K-19: The Widowmaker)

No doubt, all of this was helped by John McTiernan being at the tail-end of his best period as a director (Predator and Die Hard preceded this). The film, in actual fact, was that rare meeting of material, filmmakers, cast, and momentous timing (the ending of the real Cold War was fast approaching). Obviously, the film being an undeniable box office hit cemented its cherished standing. And certainly, I’m of the mind that The Hunt for Red October remains the foremost of the submarine films in recent years. It brought modern naval warfare to light while remaining thoroughly entertaining fare for its audience. Yet, like best of them in the this sub-genre (Das Boot, The Enemy Below, Run Silent – Run Deep), it remains at its finest as a personal tale of seamen living and reacting under-pressure. Amidst all the action, military hardware, and special effects readers and movie-goers were drawn to, there is another astonishing secret to the success of this film. Re-watch the film again, and this time note how many close-ups there actually are. It’s an impressive quantity. While the movie occurs in the vast expanse of the ocean, literally, the entire story plays across the canvas of all those great actors’ faces. In other words, “A great day comrades, we sail into history!

Note: for another great examination of this film, I highly recommend J.D.’s fine 20th anniversary look back at The Hunt for Red October from early 2010.

“Give the man a chance.”

Parallel Post Series

27 Responses to “The Hunt for Red October Film Review”

  1. J.D.

    Thanks for the shout-out, my friend. I don’t have to tell you how much I love this film. And you certainly nailed why it still works so well. As I said in my review, I still believe that Alec Baldwin is the best Jack Ryan. Loved to see him reprise the role but I guess he’s too old.

    You are right about the special effects having aged suprisingly well. They still hold up and never take me out of this film. This is one of those rare films that I can put on pretty much any time and watch. Or, if I happen to catch it partway through on TV end up watching the rest of it all the way through.

    Excellent look back at this one.

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    • le0pard13

      Yeah, this remains a great one. After all these years, it still manages to entertain and enthrall, even if you know the story. It seems you and I remain the only ones who are part of the Alec Baldwin as Jack Ryan club. Well, we will uphold that allegiance ;-). Thanks, J.D.

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  2. Rachel

    Great review (as always:)! You’ve really nailed many of the points that keep me coming back to the movie. I, too, am always impressed with how well it has held up over time. (most especially because i’ve re-watched some other things lately that have decidedly not held up well) As you pointed out, I think the cast goes a long way to keeping this movie relevant. The effects are still surprisingly good after a couple decades but the immediacy of the story is preserved well through the script and actors. I do seem to go against the grain, though, in that I don’t like Baldwin in this part. I’ve never been a big Baldwin fan (and maybe that’s why I don’t like him here) but his portrayel of Ryan has never jived with how Ryan is in my mind.

    I also think the adaptation is really well done. Distilling a Clancy novel to a 2hr movie is not an easy thing to do but it’s made to look easy here.

    My two annoyances with the film are the lack of hierarchical discipline (usu. my complaint in military films), especially with the Soviets, and Ryan leaping into the water to get on the sub. Ugh! I thought the deep-sea rescue sub was really cool and I would have liked to have seen it worked into the movie.

    PS I liked Crimson Tide

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    • le0pard13

      Thanks, Rachel. And yeah, Harrison Ford probably is closer in physical description to the Jack Ryan of the novel. And if Paramount had gotten Ford to star in this, we would have had him and Sean Connery in another pairing (Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade came out the year before). While that was fantastic, this is still one of my favorite Alec Baldwin performances. He comes off as smart and personable (and his impersonations of the Admiral and Ramius are spot-on).

      You’re right, of course, that they distilled a Clancy novel (not an easy task) down to a 2-hour movie and made it look easy. I’ve curious, what are the “hierarchical discipline” issues your have with the film? And yes, the DSV was a cool device. More of it would have been interesting.

      I never dispute people’s opinions for their likes in film. Still ,we probably could have a good Point-Counterpoint on why we like/dislike specific submarine movies, especially Crimson Tide ;-). Thanks, Rachel.

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      • Rachel

        Oh, dang, you ask a great question and i don’t have specific answers. I’d have to watch the film again and write down the instances. As an overview, movies make questioning your superior officers fairly common and expected practice, it is not. It’s even worse for the Soviets. Some of the things the men said to their Captain on the Red October literally could have ended their careers.

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        • le0pard13

          True. In fact, in certain cultures any hint of questioning your superiors affords a physical response from said higher-up. Thanks, Rachel.

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  3. rtm

    Wow, what a great, comprehensive review, but I expect nothing less from you Michael 🙂 I haven’t seen this in ages, but you made me want to rewatch it. To be honest, I much prefer Harrison Ford in the role of Jack Ryan. Like Rachel, I’ve never been a fan of Alec Baldwin, but hey Sean Connery’s presence should make up for that, ahah.

    Btw, I LOVE Die Hard: With a Vengeance, I wonder what McTiernan is doing next.

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    • Rachel

      Connery definitely makes up for any personal aversion I might have to Baldwin for sure! Plus, the entire cast is so good that the movie carries very well. I think that really says something because if you don’t like the main guy you usually can’t get into the movie but in this case it’s no problem for me.

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    • le0pard13

      Thank you so much for the kind words, Ruth. So, we guys prefer Baldwin and you/Rachel are Harrison Ford as Ryan fans. Hmm… Well, at least we can agree Sean Connery is still The Man ;-).

      Except for a couple of missteps, I remain a John McTiernan fan. I, too, am a fan of Die Hard With a Vengence (and especially its alternative ending). The 13th Warrior, The Thomas Crown Affair remake, and Basic seem so long ago, now. His career has been on hold since that Anthony Pellicano investigation.

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      • Rachel

        I like Ford just fine as Ryan but, quite literally, Baldwin does not work for what I picked up in the books. I suppose, technically, that means I like Ford better than Baldwin but I don’t necessarily like Ford in direct comparison to Baldwin. I am comparing both to what my mind pictures from the books. Am I splitting hairs here? 🙂

        One thing I thought quite interesting about Baldwin’s portrayal is that he seemed very whimsical to me. As in, he acted a whimsical Jack Ryan.

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  4. Castor

    I loved this movie as a kid (still do, just not as fanatically) as I was going through a phase of being absolutely fascinated with anything that had to do with the Cold War. Needless to say, just seeing all the military hardware in the movie gave me a hard-on ahah.

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    • le0pard13

      Yeah, this one had good backing with the DoD that’s for sure. It really is a fun film and a great Cold War thriller. Thanks for the comment and stopping by, Castor.

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  5. Christine McCann

    Definitely one of our top ten films! I’m not really sure you can ever see this film too many times.(She says as it’s playing in the background on IFC.) Such great lines, scenes and cast! I liked both Baldwin and Ford though I was disappointed that we lost the continuity when Baldwin didn’t reprise the role. I guess I wasn’t overly impressed by Affleck because I really just felt “meh” over Sum of All Fears.

    I’ve never read any of Clancy’s books, but we tried listening to one of his audiobooks. (Can’t recall which one but it was after Red October) We had to shut it off because it was just so detailed and both Brian and I were bored. (Not the desired result anytime, but especially when you want your audiobook to make a long road trip less painful. ;p) I’ll be interested to read what Rachel has to say about the book.

    As always, a fabulous review! Thanks, Michael!

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    • Christine McCann

      BTW, in regards to Sean Connery, I loved this quote from the movie FIRST WIVES CLUB: Goldie Hawn’s actress character is drunk and angry that she was asked to play the mother and not the lead. She’s talking at the bartender:

      “No, Sean Connery is Monique’s boyfriend! He may be three hundred years old, but he’s still a stud!”

      ‘Nuff said. 😉

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    • le0pard13

      Yes, I lamented the loss of Baldwin when he didn’t stay with this franchise. I like the early (Chasing Amy, Good Will Hunting, Shakespeare in Love) and later Ben Affleck (The Town, Company Men) than his stuff in the middle (including his Ryan in Sum of All Fears). And yeah, I can understand the problem with the audiobook as his books are soooooo detailed. If you don’t have a really, really good narrator to make it less dense, you’re not going to enjoy it. Make sure to read Rachel’s review as she went very nostalgic with her examination. Thanks, Christine.

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  6. Dan

    Although McTiernan’s career seems to have died a death now I would say he made one other “great” film that never gets the attention it deserves (unless its bad publicity). That would be Last Action Hero – flawed, absolutely; but what a great premise and it did the whole self-referential thing before it became second nature in Hollywood.

    Excellent analysis of the film Michael. The Hunt For The Red October has never been my favourite McTiernan film but it is part of several memorable actions films he made that still hold up terrifically well today.

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    • le0pard13

      Can’t argue with that, Dan. McTiernan’s had a great career with comparable work (and I wish he’d reemerge from the cloud he’s been under). Y’know, I do need to re-screen Last Action Hero. It has been receiving reappraisal by a good many bloggers who note exactly what you say. I remember some really good moments with the film, along with things I was less than thrilled with. But, I and others should give it another chance — I certainly will based on your comment here.

      Thank you very much for the kind words about the review, Dan. I appreciate it.

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