A Life in Film is a project where I’m writing about a movie from every year I’ve been alive.

1990: Dudes Rock Under the Sea

THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (dir. John McTiernan)

To lean again on the autobio part of this project: The Hunt for Red October is another one that I’m not about to claim is great cinema (although as a really well-executed-more-or-less-based-in-something-resembling-the-real-world thriller, it’s maybe a great example of a type of cinema that I’d love to see more of in the modern era). But it’s a movie that appealed to a bunch of my interests when it came out, and maybe helped cement them as things that would stay on my mind for the long haul. And it’s also a ton of fun, which is nothing to sneeze at.

But those interests. This was, of course, the first film adaptation of a Tom Clancy book (FWIW, I feel like it’s by far the best Clancy movie, adapting his best book). I was at the time going through the kind of Tom Clancy megafan phase that only makes sense when you remember that it was before the internet and I was living in deeply conservative rural Nebraska and the pipeline for new-author discovery was, uh, limited. I’ve written at length about my difficult mental relationship with the works of Thomas Clancy, but at the time I thought he was better than Hormel chili and any movie adaptation was something I had to see.

Clancy’s books, including Red October, often center on the CIA, which was another major interest at the time. Of course, nerdy adolescent boys often get interested in spying; that’s nothing unusual. What made me different was that I damn well did something about it, going through a process that came pretty close to getting me a job at the CIA *and* getting me a very unfortunate hat from Structure (and yeah, this is a thing I mention at the end of the linked comic, but it’s worth mentioning here: given where my mind and politics went as the 90s progressed, I think it was best for both me and the CIA that the thing didn’t work out).

I have to assume that Connery enjoyed the costuming sessions for Red October a lot more than he did for Zardoz.

And then finally: this is a movie about submarines, and I was one of those weird landlocked kids with an unshakeable fascination with ships. Ships on their own are pretty cool–they’re huge! They’re engineering marvels! They make for great movies because they constrain people in time and space and are really susceptible to things going wrong! And what type of ship is more dramatic than submarines? None of them! Submarines make for great movies because they, as a class of ships, are automatic stakes-raisers. Just by the fact of their existence, submarines seem to piss in the face of the laws of nature. Nuclear missile submarines doubly so, since they carry potentially world-ending amounts of gravitas in their missile tubes. This is why there are always submarine movies out there, and why the middle-aged dads and dads-in-spirit of America always want to watch them.

So that was my pull towards this movie when it came out. Luckily for me, McTiernan did a great job with the material, so all of this pull meant that I got to have a fun moviegoing experience, as opposed to a grim slog and subsequent decision about whether I was going to stick up for a piece of shit movie. I know the popular sentiment is almost certainly that Die Hard is McTiernan’s masterpiece, but I think I like Red October better (probably for the special-interest reasons I just laid out). The two movies are great in a lot of similar ways: steadily ratcheting tension with clear, easy-to-follow stakes; action playing out in enclosed spaces; plans-within-plans machinations that would make Frank Herbert nod in approval; and all of it driven by a more-or-less-regular-guy hero who got pulled into something he didn’t mean to get involved with.

The pleasures of Red October are simple and many: Sean Connery, chewing scenery with dignity as he kicks off the Old Connery phase of his career with one of its best manifestations (the other being Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, of course). The glimpses of shipboard life and crew camaraderie on both Soviet and American subs. The model work for sub action, which has aged wonderfully in the CGI era. The aforementioned ratcheting tension of the plot, even if some of the streamlining inherent to adaptation means that plot mechanics that made perfect sense in the book get a lot iffier if you think their movie incarnations through.

And then: if you’re a person who gets a little thrill out of recognizing character actors, this movie is a damned smorgasbord. Connery , Baldwin, and James Earl Jones are all stars, of course; but it feels like every other person in this movie triggers an immediate “HEY! IT’S THAT GUY!” reflex: Courtney B. Vance (who gives off a vibe of loose, genial competence that lets him steal every scene he’s in); Scott Glenn; Fred Thompson (his real-life political career: not great; but his onscreen presence as a gruff admiral: pretttty good); Gates McFadden (setting the trend that would sadly follow through all of the ST:TNG movies of her showing up in a movie and being given nothing at all to do); Richard Jordan; Tim Curry; Jeffrey Jones (sigh; look, we didn’t know then); Sam Neill (I guess Jurassic Park would elevate him out of that-guy mode soon); and Stellan Skarsgard (everyone’s mind is a sunless place on a Russian sub). There’s even some that-guy action behind the screen, with John Milius showing up to do script rewrites.

All dudesh pleashe report to the bridge to witnesh your captain showing grashe under pressure

I can’t pretend that there’s any great truth being presented here. The closest thing The Hunt for Red October has to a point is “honorable people within the Soviet Union could see how much it sucked and wanted to get out,” which feels a bit like historically spiking the ball in the endzone in a 1990 movie. And most of the time I want movies to have some kind of great truth embedded in them, or at least to have a point. But every now and then it’s fun to watch something that’s just sort of Dudes Rock Under the Sea. It’s sort of the “you don’t have to be great to be awesome” thing from Smokey and the Bandit all over again, but with big underwater boats instead of cool cars.

I wouldn’t want to live in a world where The Hunt for Red October was the template for every movie. But I’m glad that we have it.

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