Maybe it’s because of the speed of the news cycle, but filmmakers today will tell a story set at a particular time and place in history and simply not worry at all if that cultural context will change. The directors of movies like W, The Report, Dark Water and many more plant their feet in a fixed setting and forge ahead largely unconcerned that new information will emerge or events will change the tone or context of their story. But thirty years ago, the world itself seemed to be more finite, less quick to change overnight, which might be why the producers of The Hunt For Red October worried actively that the historical setting of their film could be in jeopardy, ruining the audience’s suspension of disbelief, or even the historical forces that make its premise plausible at all.
The irony is that the lingering context of John McTiernan’s adaptation of Tom Clancy’s best seller is first and foremost as a superlative action thriller, a hat trick following two other bona fide masterpieces, Predator and Die Hard. Looking at The Hunt For Red October, what stands out is how astute and nuanced the film is in its depiction of Cold War politics at the end of decades of cartoonish Soviet villainy, even as it showcases a wonderfully different, almost bygone depiction of heroism where asking questions come first and shooting comes later - and then, only reluctantly.
Prior to McTiernan’s film, the default setting for Russian characters in English-language was simplistic and villainous. Even when external threats jeopardized the world in, say, a Bond movie, forcing, England, the U.S. and Russia to collaborate on a solution, the Soviet characters were heavily-accented bureaucratic vodka drinkers, and little else. Clancy’s story juxtaposed his longtime hero Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin in his one and tragically only outing in the role) with a counterpart, Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), who was mysterious, authoritative, but unambiguously heroic. Even if the global powers maneuvering to apprehend Ramius and his submarine didn’t know his motives, audiences did from the earliest scenes in the film, and understood that he was tired of wargames, and tired of the constant vigilance of maintaining political animosity towards his country’s opponents. Plus, he kills a party-line Russian in one of his first scenes, a good way to demonstrate his likeability to American audiences.
But one of the things the movie also does with extraordinary skill is work around the language barrier between Americans and Russians, a significant issue in a film where there are so many prominent characters on both sides of that divide. In earlier films featuring Russian characters, they would all simply speak in accented English, or minimize the role of characters who didn’t speak English at all. McTiernan shoots most of the first big scene featuring the Russian characters speaking in Russian, and then zooms in as a character uses the one word that’s the same - “Armageddon” - and then zooms out as the actors continue their conversation in English. It’s such a subtle choice that many audiences won’t even notice, but the implication that they are “actually” speaking in their native tongue and the movie is helpfully translating maintains a sense of movie magic (and quite frankly, enables Connery to speak somewhat inexplicably in a Scottish accent while his costars adopt Russian accents).
But once these conceits are established, the film dives into its lexicon of nautical and political terms with such gusto that they almost feel like a different language - certainly in comparison to modern films where the idea and mechanics of these enormous submarines would absolutely be minimized. In that regard, it’s a great nautical film, because it’s very much about how these ships are maneuvered, how pursuit and attack and defense are mounted, and how communication - be it chain of command or between a submarine and the outside world - is undertaken. There seems to be real care taken to maintain authenticity, or if not, at least to parse out information patiently to cultivate suspense rather than to simply shuffle the film through one action set piece after another.
In a way, it feels like a wonderful halfway point between two of my favorite Star Trek movies, The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country, where the action is staged as an act of gamesmanship and strategy, but the engine of the plot contrasts a sense of reconciliation and progress with a fear and disbelief in the possibility of change. The film pits one man’s expertise - and a wild hunch - against decades of American military policy, much less the entrenched beliefs that maintained them, and then develops scenarios that force, or enable, Jack to persuade his superiors, and then the audience, to believe this is all possible. And at the same time, there’s just some absolutely great, in-the-weeds nerdy nautical action that showcases almost peerless creativity and ingenuity starting with Larry Ferguson and Donald E. Stewart’s script and then McTiernan’s handsome, muscular direction.
Truly, there’s something amazing - just thrilling - about watching characters who are good at their jobs applying their intelligence and expertise to solving problems. Baldwin’s constant perspiration feels like a natural byproduct of racheting the tension one scene after another until the situation becomes an explosive powder keg. But he’s not the only one. Ramius’ experience is self-evident, not just in evading his Russian pursuers but in mounting a successful operation to defect and then to communicate that to his American benefactors. As Commander Mancuso, Scott Glenn conveys cool authority and a sort of inspiring trust, first of Ryan and then of Ramius once he learns of the Russian’s gambit to defect. These are individual characters who react with measured intelligence as the situation changes, so that when time comes to act - with the submarines or a single firearm, playing cat-and-mouse in an engine room - each choice is a natural and inevitable extension of the ones that came before.
To be honest, I barely remember the Harrison Ford Jack Ryan films (though I definitely saw them), but what I really like about Baldwin’s characterization is that he carries all of the injured-in-the-field backstory they dramatized later in the Chris Pine iteration Shadow Recruit, but first and foremost he is an analyst - an intellectual who only incidentally possesses action hero bona fides. My memories of the rest are that they yield too readily to action set pieces rather than an attempt to explore and understand geopolitics. When Ryan finally fires a weapon in The Hunt For Red October, it’s a major, climactic moment for the movie and the character that tells us something about what he’s capable of, less than who he is.
As a young man of 14 when the movie originally came out, the Cold War was more of a distant idea to me than any sort of existential threat, but what I remember taking away was the idea that these people who are ostensibly our opponents are complex individuals just like we are, possessed of recognizable, sympathetic needs and wants, and deserving of our understanding, and possibly our compassion. Even in a decade dominated by political thrillers about Russia, that felt like a fairly radical notion on the scale on which McTiernan’s film operated, starting with the broken-down language barriers and ending with a note of mutual identification between a CIA analyst and Russia’s most decorated submarine captain - not about politics, but the simple pleasures of fishing.
For McTiernan, the film showed the director at the height of his skills, highlighting a dense A-list cast in characters who are thoughtful and complex while transforming visuals of smoky underwater cigars into riveting cinema. Looking back at it now, it really does feel like a movie of a different time, when the rhythms of filmmaking and character development and storytelling were just much, much slower, but maybe as a result felt much richer. But what’s so fascinating about it then and now is that it always was an epochal film, a changing of the guard, about the way we depict politics and action and look at certain kinds of characters - and as an extension, at certain kinds of people. Using the drama of division and the context of history, The Hunt For Red October masterfully showcases how the notion itself of enemies and allies is a simplistic, outdated perspective that changes far more with patience, intelligence, empathy and time than at the end of a gun barrel.