Crimson Tide

By David Sturm, Copyright 1996

It's Popeye Doyle vs. Malcolm X and the fate of the planet is at stake. Yikes!

Well, okay, it's really Gene Hackman locking horns with Denzel Washington in "Crimson Tide," now out on video, but half the viewing fun is reading the broader cultural meaning.

The submarine movie "Crimson Tide," directed by Tony "Top Gun" Scott from the novel by Tom "Red October" Clancy, heaves to the surface bristling with hi-tech, action movie credentials.

It opens on the deck of a wind-swept aircraft carrier, where a CNN reporter breathlessly brings us up to date on a crisis in Russia that portends civil war, maybe even World War III.

Soon, the USS Alabama, a sub armed with nuclear missiles, goes to sea with Hackman as commander and Washington as his new executive officer, each rubbing the other the wrong way. The sub gets a message ordering a nuclear attack on Russia. Then, another partial message is received that could be either confirming or cancelling the missile launch. Every minute, of course, counts.

Sub movie conventions are all in place, from the attack that sends sparks flying and and water rushing into the engine room, to the dive into uncharted depths ("Approaching hull-crush depth, sir!" is an inevitable comment.) Crew members even play sub movie trivia (although the masterpiece "Das Boot" goes unmentioned).

It comes down to a war of wills between launch-now Hackman and wait-and-see Washington. Crew members choose sides and mutiny rears its head.

Hackman is all blunt swagger, a commander echoing George C. Scott in "Patton," Sterling Hayden in "Dr. Strangelove" and John Wayne in the movie of your choice. Washington, although heard expressing humanist sentiments (he's a Harvard man), is a tower of military integrity (he's also an Annapolis man).

This is the casting paradigm in almost any Hollywood movie featuring black and white male co-stars. The black star is more sane, more moral, and more adult. The white star is more charismatic, more daring, and more child-like.

The relationship between Danny Glover and Mel Gibson in the "Lethal Weapon" movies is a textbook example, although the pattern appears constantly and can perhaps be traced back to Huck and Jim in "Huckleberry Finn."

It's a buddy relationship that Americans seem to find very comforting. Some writers have recently observed that there are elements of propaganda in the paradigm. Certainly, "Crimson Tide" has an ending that restores order, both militarily and racially.

For an interesting mental exercise, try to imagine "Crimson Tide" with Hackman and Washington playing each other's roles.

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