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Film / Crimson Tide

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"The three most powerful men in the world: the President of the United States of America; the President of the Russian Republic; and the Captain of a United States ballistic missile submarine."

Crimson Tide is a war film about the United States Navy's nuclear submarine USS Alabama (SSBN-731), which gets sent to the Russian Far East to deter the leader of a Russian civil war, a violent nationalist who may or may not have nuclear weapons to use against the United States.

The main conflict occurs between the boat's executive officer, Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington), and The Captain, Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman). Their personalities openly clash, Hunter being the modern Cultured Warrior and Ramsey having similarities to the old-fashioned Sergeant Rock. When their orders are Lost in Transmission, Hunter argues that they should not launch their nuclear weapons until they can confirm the orders. Ramsey fears that would be too risky and give the Renegade Russians time to strike first.

Note on the title: "Crimson Tide" is the nickname for the sports teams at the University of Alabama.


Tropes include:

  • Activation Sequence: It takes eight minutes to fuel a submarine's nuclear missiles. It doesn't show the fuel actually flowing through the pipes, but there are progress reports during a scuffle between the captain and XO on the bridge. It's also mentioned that the Soviet missiles, being much larger ICBMs, need fourteen minutes to fuel up. It was an intel report that the Soviet fuel-up order had been given which motivated the Captain and his loyalists to begin the Alabama's launch protocol.
  • Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: Near the end when the two commanders refuse to back down, and just sit around hoping the radio gets fixed... and start having a conversation about leadership, thinly disguised as a discussion on horses, in a Call-Back to the conversation they had when they first met.
    • Hunter invoking Star Trek to get Vossler to speed up repairs, lest they start World War III.
    • The scene in the officer's mess, wherein they discuss the nature of war and politics.
  • Anti-Mutiny: Essentially the entire plot is whether Hunter is attempting this or The Mutiny.
  • Artistic License – Military:
    • In real life, the command to launch nuclear weapons cannot be countermanded once confirmed, precisely because of what happens in the film. For that same reason, the Alabama would never have received a conditional order to launch at some indeterminate point in the future. Rather, they would have been directed to get into position, but the final order to launch would be withheld until the desired time. Though if they did that, there would be no story.
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    • Multiple members of the crew, including the command staff, are heavily overweight, in one arguable (and plot-relevant) case lethally so. While the Navy's fitness standards aren't extreme, they're not that permissive.
    • During the discussion on whether the Russians have already launched their missiles, Zimmer claims (in somewhat more colorful language) that one doesn't prep nuclear missiles without the intent to immediately use them. This ignores the entirety of the Cold War, where both sides armed their missiles at various points but never used them.
    • No captain, regardless of how well-respected they are, would ever be allowed to have a pet (least of all a dog) onboard their submarine.
    • Running a weapons drill during an actual fire emergency is also a huge no-no.note 
    • Though submarines today (especially SSBNs) are not nearly as cramped as earlier models, they still do not have any crawl spaces large enough for Hunter and Co. to sneak around in.
    • An SSBN would not be called upon to conduct the kind of nuclear strike the situation calls for. One, to avoid the very communications issue we see happen and two, because submarine-launched ballistic missiles are not considered accurate enough to take out hardened ICBM silos like the ones the renegades control. In reality, the U.S. would use its own ICBMs, or if time was really of the essence, nuclear-tipped missiles from ships off the coast or stealth bombers.
  • As You Know: During the attacks by the Akula submarine, one crew member repeatedly asks about basic concepts like the Arbitrary Minimum Range of the torpedoes (why Hunter maneuvers the Alabama to a thousand yards from the enemy before firing). In fairness, this is lampshaded when Rivetti becomes aghast at the other sailor's ignorance.
    Sailor: Let's just shoot this sucker! What's a thousand yards for?
    Rivetti: 'Cause it takes a thousand yards for the torpedoes to arm! Jesus, who'd you fuck to get on this ship?!
  • Attack on One Is an Attack on All: Rebel leader Radchenko tells the world that as president, he will kill nine hundred thousand citizens of any nation who kills one Russian citizen.
  • Badass Creed: This exchange, between the captain and the chief of the boat, spoken to the crew before they board as a sort of creed:
    Ramsey: You're aware of the name of this ship note , aren't you Mister COB?
    Walters: Very aware, sir!
    Ramsey: It bears a proud name, doesn't it Mister COB?
    Walters: Very proud, sir!
    Ramsey: It represents fine people!
    Walters: Very fine people, sir!
    Ramsey: Who live in a fine, outstanding state!
    Walters: Outstanding, sir!
    Ramsey: In the greatest country in the entire world!
    Walters: In the entire world, sir!
    Ramsey: And what is that name, Mister COB?
    Walters: Alabama, sir!
    Ramsey: And what do we say?
    Ramsey/Walters: Go Bama!
    Crew: Roll Tide!
  • Black Dude Dies First: Marichek suffers a fatal heart attack during the kitchen fire, making him the first casualty on the Alabama.
  • Blood Knight / Colonel Kilgore: In an early dinner table conversation, Ramsey is obviously enamoured with the glory of war and destroying the enemy in the line of duty.
  • Both Sides Have a Point: If the Russians are still fueling their missiles, there's a limited window to launch a preemptive counterstrike, and the Alabama may be the only ship able to do so. On the other hand, if they've stopped, a launch would assuredly start World War III.
  • Can't Kill You, Still Need You: Captain Ramsay threatens Weps with a gun to get the launch trigger. Weps is the only person on the ship that knows the combination to the safe with the launch trigger in it, and refuses to open it. The captain counts to three, but curses when he realizes that if he kills Weps, no one will be able to open the safe. So he points his gun at another sailor's head, and states that the sailor will die on the count of three. Weps is clearly horrified and relents, opening the safe. Fortunately, the delay is long enough that Hunter is able to remove the launch key in the CIC.
  • The Captain: It may be the Commander-in-chief's Navy, but this is Ramsey's boat—and if you can't keep up, that strange sensation you'll be feeling in the seat of your pants will be his boot in your ass!
    • Commander Hunter makes for a competent skipper during his short stint in command.
  • Captain Smooth and Sergeant Rough: Inverted—Captain Ramsey is the hardass in contrast to the more reasonable XO Hunter.
  • "Cavemen vs. Astronauts" Debate: A fight ensues when Rivetti says that the Kirby Silver Surfer was the only true Silver Surfer, and that the Mœbius Silver Surfer was shit. The incident serves to underline the Subtext of tension that is running through the boat as the threat of nuclear war (and the lack of communication with the outside world) erodes morale.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Many many times. We get a weapons drill followed by the real thing, a mutiny and counter-mutiny (and counter-counter-mutiny), the EAM, the conversations about horses...
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Rivetti. Hunter breaks up a fight between him and Benefield over the Silver Surfer. During the later power struggle, Rivetti helps Hunter to stop Ramsey.
  • Chew-Out Fake-Out:
    • Downplayed early in the movie—Hunter scolds Rivetti for getting into a fight over the Silver Surfer, but agrees with him about whose Silver Surfer was better.
    • Inverted immediately after, when Hunter brings his concerns of morale to Ramsey, who then issues a ship-wide announcement after Hunter suggests that the men need some positive news. Ramsey starts off sounding reasonable, and then rips the entire boat a new one, stating that they are a US Navy combat ship with an imminent war posture and if you don't like it, get the hell off his boat.
    • The admiral at the end scolds Ramsey and Hunter for the breakdown in the chain of command before commending Hunter for averting a nuclear war and recommending him for his own command.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: The poor crewmen who are trapped in the flooding bilge bay and drown.
  • Cultured Warrior: Hunter went to Harvard, and likes to ride horses.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Hunter and Rivetti.
  • "Die Hard" on a Submarine: When Hunter and his men fight to stop Ramsey from launching the missiles.
  • Dutch Angle: Noticeably used a couple of times in the latter half of the movie.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: Ramsey is surprised and disappointed that Master Chief Walters is among the mutineers.
  • Eye Scream: When the bilge bay floods one of the crewmen trapped there gets a flying bolt cap to the face.
  • Explosive Instrumentation: A couple Downplayed examples:
    • When a torpedo explodes too close to the Alabama, a few sparks fly on The Bridge, but don't take anybody out.
    • The damaged radio equipment shoots a few sparks while Vossler is trying to repair it.
  • A Father to His Men: Hunter leads from the bottom up, contrasting with Ramsey's lead from the top style.
    • Nevertheless, the men have a near fanatical devotion to Ramsey.
  • Foreshadowing: In the opening, Captain Ramsey comments that Jack Russell Terriers, like his dog, are the smartest animals alive. Bear, the dog, seems to take to Commander Hunter, approving of him. Turns out, the dog made the right call.
    • In a coffee break in the officer's mess, the Captain, his XO, and several officers discuss Von Clausewitz and his musings on war. Commander Hunter's assertion that the true enemy is war itself foreshadows how he eventually wins a nuclear war, by not starting one.
  • Freak Out: One sailor nearly loses it when the Alabama nearly sinks to her doom.
  • Foil: As much as the movie plays up the differences between them, in many ways Hunter is a younger Ramsey. Like the Captain, Commander Hunter has no qualms sacrificing the lives of three crewmen if it means saving the ship. As "cultured" as Hunter is, if you pay attention, you'll notice that in his state room, Captain Ramsey always has some sort of classical or opera music playing. Additionally, each man is capable of rallying various crew to their cause with little more than a word.
  • General Ripper: Radchenko not only takes control of an ICBM base but starts fueling the missiles with the intent to actually use them.
  • God Help Us All: Ramsey believes they should launch their nuclear missiles immediately to obliterate the terrorist faction in Russia. Hunter argues that they should get confirmation before starting a nuclear holocaust.
    Ramsey: God help you if you're wrong.
    Hunter: If I'm wrong, then we're at war. God help us all.
  • Good Is Not Soft: Hunter may be heroic and moral, but he doesn't hesitate to destroy the Akula that attacks the Alabama and he orders Hellerman to seal the bilge bay and let three men drown in order to save the ship.
  • Good vs. Good: Ramsey and Hunter are both doing what they think is best for America.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: Radchenko.
  • Ham-to-Ham Combat: Hunter and Ramsey get into a full-on shouting match over what orders they're supposed to follow.
  • Heel–Face Revolving Door: Weps jumps from Hunter’s side to Ramsey’s and back again.
  • Heel Realization: The expression on Captain Ramsey's face when the EAM is read looks like this.
  • Heroes Love Dogs: Okay, Ramsey's more of an Anti-Hero (or Anti-Villain, depending on how you look at it), but he really does love his dog. Hunter, who's higher up on the heroic scale, is also fond of the dog. He also has his own dog whom he clearly cares about.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Four crewmen remain behind in the flooding bilge bay to try and plug the leak, and ultimately drown when the hatch is sealed.
  • Hope Spot: The crew celebrates when they destroy the Akula...and then they see one more torpedo coming for them...
  • Hot Sub-on-Sub Action: The Akula class. Or is it? Bum bum bum.
  • Instantly Proven Wrong: When Hunter and Weps are watching the footage from Russia, Weps idly suggests that it's not as bad as it looks. Cue Hunter's home phone ringing, along with Weps' beeper. It is as bad as it looks.
  • Interservice Rivalry: "I expect and demand your very best. Anything less—you should have joined the Air Force!"
  • Irrevocable Order: Deconstructed as the basis for the internal conflict of the crew. When the new message is interrupted by the enemy sub, Ramsey chooses to continue with their existing order to launch, having no orders to the contrary in hand, and on the basis that the other subs with redundant orders may have been destroyed. Hunter wants to try to repair the radio, arguing that the new message could be an order to change targets, or cancel the launch entirely. Ramsey and Hunter both argue the merits of their positions to the officers and crew forming their respective factions. Hunter even explicitly points out that if they fire, and they're wrong, they will have caused World War III when Russia retaliates. Ultimately subverted when they repair the radio and confirm that the new message IS, in fact, an order to cancel their launch, as the rebel missile site had been recaptured by the Russian government.
  • Karma Houdini: Dougherty, Zimmer and Westergard launch a rebellion against Hunter (and come across as jerks a bit in the process) that nearly launches the war after all, but are never shown to have been reprimanded in the aftermath due to the brass's decision that it was a Good vs. Good conflict.
  • Lost in Transmission: The main conflict revolves around the differing opinions of the captain and the executive officer after they receive an interrupted emergency message that begins "Nuclear missile laun...". Having previously been ordered to launch their nuclear weapons, and being unable to reestablish communications, the captain feels they must ignore the incomplete transmission (which due to this trope has no authentication code) and launch immediately, as per their orders in hand, while the executive officer wants time to ask for confirmation before they start a nuclear holocaust.
    Weps: If they order him to launch, we'll launch, and we'll blow 'em all to hell. But I'd rather go down myself than get this one wrong.
  • Manly Tears: Quite a few are shed both while the Alabama is sinking and when they barely escape a watery grave. Even the ones who don't weep are just barely holding it together.
  • Martial Pacifist: Hunter. He fights back against an Akula that attacks the Alabama, but he won't launch the nukes if there's a chance that the order has been rescinded.
  • Mexican Standoff: During the climax, half the people on The Bridge have weapons pointed at each other.
  • Mildly Military: There was a lot of Artistic License, but Real Life submariners actually thought the film got a surprising amount right.
  • Military Maverick: Captain Ramsey.
  • Missing Mission Control: Pretty much the central factor behind the plot: the USS Alabama suffers a radio equipment malfunction while in the middle of receiving a high-priority message: The crew does not know whether their orders are to launch their nuclear missiles or to abort, and The Captain and the Commander Contrarian end up unable to agree on their next course of action.
  • Mission Briefing: Ramsey and a visiting admiral give one to the officers of the Alabama before they set sail. It also serves to introduce Hunter to the rest of the crew.
  • The Mutiny: There's a mutiny aboard a submarine during rising tensions between the United States and Russia that were set to go nuclear. Tricky, in that none of the participants are sure who the mutineer actually is, as both sides claim legitimate authority within the Articles of War governing the United States Navy.
  • My Master, Right or Wrong: Several Alabama crewmembers demonstrate that even when they don't understand the logic of his decisions, they'll follow Captain Ramsey loyally to the bitter end. Part of the friction with Commander Hunter is that he is slightly less willing to follow the Captain all gung-ho.
    • One gets the impression that if the Alabama had launched an unconfirmed strike and triggered a world ending nuclear war; if the crew stood trial (if anyone was left to try them) they'd still defend their commander's orders.
    • Subverted with Master Chief Walters, who makes it clear to Hunter that while he supports Ramsey, he is taking Hunter’s side because Ramsey has overstepped his authority and out of fear of causing a nuclear war.
  • The Neidermeyer: When he's not being a Colonel Kilgore to his officers, talking about how "war is the continuation of politics by other means", Ramsey is The Neidermeyer to the crew during normal day-to-day operations. When informed by Hunter that morale is low and that they might need some words of encouragement from their beloved captain, Ramsey takes the opportunity to chew them all out over the intercom for being lazy and feckless. He also orders a missile drill in response to news of a fire breaking out in the ship's kitchen, just to test the crew's readiness.
    • Lt. Dougherty persecutes a poor seaman on the bus because he didn't address him correctly. He demands the crewman answer an obscure question from an old submarine film and makes him drop and give him 20 when the crewman fails to answer.
  • Nerves of Steel: Hunter is almost always calm under pressure, be it arguing with Captain Ramsey, or in a fight with the Akula.
  • Never My Fault: Zigzagged. At the end Ramsey says that Hunter was right, but then reveals he's taking about horses that each thought was from a different country although its possible that he means both.
    • Several of Ramsey's supporters from the various mutinies also lack much contrition or introspection once it turns out that Hunter was indeed right.
  • New Meat: Subverted: Hunter is new to this boat, but is very experienced.
    • Experienced in non-combat situations that is. A major part of the conflict is that Hunter is experienced but too young to have seen real action, whereas Ramsey is stated to be one of the last officers in the Navy with experience of war. Hunter handily dispels any doubts to his competence by taking out the Akula.
  • Newscaster Cameo: Richard Valeriani, a long-time White House correspondent, played himself reporting the backstory leading to the plot.
  • Noisy Guns: When it's all gone seriously wrong, near the close, two groups of submariners are pointing guns at each other. Every move they make seems to result in their guns being cocked, going by the soundtrack.
  • A Nuclear Error: The captain of a US nuclear submarine was, until recently, permitted to release his nuclear weapons if he could not communicate with the President after the order to arm the warheads was given. In 1995, this was also the Russian policy for sub commanders.
  • Only the Creator Does It Right: In-Universe, this is the crux of the fight between Rivetti and Benefield, as the former only likes the Silver Surfer as originally done by Jack Kirby while the latter prefers the Jean "Moebius" Giraud interpretation.
  • Plot-Driven Breakdown: The buoy winch malfunctions at the worst possible time. Not only does it prevent contact with Washington, it also reveals the Alabama's position to the Akula.
  • Race Against the Clock: For the captain this trope is literal. The Russians have begun fueling their missiles and so they will be ready to launch in one hour. If that's correct, then he needs to launch preemptively.
  • Red Alert: The captain of the Alabama is depicted ordering back-to-back drills for "Battle Stations, Torpedo" and "Battle Stations, Missile" while a very real fire is being fought in another compartment. The climax of the film occurs with the crew at Battle Stations, Missile.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Blood Knight Ramsey and Martial Pacifist Hunter, respectively.
  • Renegade Russian: Vladimir Radchenko. Ramsey even notes that this guy is playing a whole different game than the good old-fashioned commies did.
  • Repeat to Confirm: Especially prevalent whenever they receive and authenticate an Emergency Action Message. Then again, with megaton-scale bombs under their control, there's absolutely no room for ambiguity.
  • Rousing Speech: Defied by Ramsey when Hunter tells him that the crew may need a pat on the back to improve morale. The Captain makes an immediate boat-wide speech that essentially says "man up or get off the boat".
    Ramsey: May I have your attention, please. Mr. Hunter has brought it to my attention that morale may be a bit low, that you may be a bit...
    Hunter: (mouthing) On edge.
    Ramsey: ...on edge. So I suggest this: Any crewmember who feels he can't handle the situation can leave the ship right now. Gentlemen, we're at Defcon 3. War is imminent! This is the captain. That is all.
    Hunter: Very inspiring, sir.
    • The Captain had played this straight before the crew boarded, but did promise a boot in the ass of anyone who couldn't keep up.
  • Seinfeldian Conversation: These pop culture conversations were apparently added by Quentin Tarantino, who was a script doctor for this film:
    • Rivetti and Benefield get into an argument over which Silver Surfer is the best one.
    • Dougherty and some other officers talk about submarine movies, including The Enemy Below.
    • The ongoing conversation between Hunter and Ramsey about horse racing.
  • Sensor Suspense: All throughout the skirmish with the Akula, with her appearing, disappearing, and reappearing and firing torpedoes.
  • Serious Business: Several of the men get into a physical fight over which Silver Surfer was the "true" one. The incident is meant to emphasize just how on edge they all are due to the tense situation with the nuke dilemma.
  • Shout-Out:
    Hunter: Well I'm Captain Kirk, you're Scotty, I need more power.
    • Hunter reassures Rivetti that, "anyone who reads comic books knows that the Kirby Silver Surfer is the only true Silver Surfer."
  • Silent Running Mode: During their encounter with the Akula, they rig for "ultra quiet."
  • Sinking Ship Scenario: Hunter finds himself in this situation with him forced to order flooding sections sealed with men inside.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The majestic music that plays while the Alabama is sinking and three sailors drown in the bilge bay.
  • Suddenly SHOUTING!: How it becomes clear that the breakdown in command unity has reached a critical point, which occurs during the second conversation between Hunter and Ramsey on what to do about the cut off EAM transmission.
    Ramsey: "Mr. Hunter, I've made my decision, I'm captain of this boat, NOW SHUT THE FUCK UP!"
  • That's an Order!: Hunter giving the order to seal the bilge bay to save the ship, even though three men will drown.
    Hunter: Lieutenant Hellerman, you have your orders! Now seal the goddamn bilge bay before we all go down!
  • This Is Not a Drill: When they really do get the order to be on standby. Played with as there was a drill before.
  • Two-Keyed Lock: The conflict between Ramsey and Hunter demonstrates why there are two keys necessary to launch the missiles.
  • War Is Hell: Espoused by Hunter. "In my humble opinion, in the nuclear world, the true enemy is war itself."
  • Wicked Cultured: Ramsey has a Schubert piece playing in his cabin during an early scene with Hunter.
  • With Due Respect
  • World War III: Averted at the end.
  • Yes-Man: Both Discussed and Defied—Ramsey makes it clear that he won't tolerate a kiss-ass. Hunter quickly proves that he's no kiss-ass.


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