A new cold war in sight

Russophobes live to fight another day

Published: Apr 11 2018, 01:01:am

Friday, March 2, 1990.

THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER. Written by Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart. Based on the 1984 novel by Tom Clancy. Music by Basil Poledouris. Running time: 135 minutes. Directed by John McTiernan. Rated Mature with the B.C. Classifier’s warning: occasional violence and swearing.
    Called together by national security advisor Jeffery Pelt (Richard Jordan), the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff readily accept the idea that Soviet submarine Captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery) is in helter-skelter mode.
    Insanity, it must be noted, has always played well during basement meetings in the White House. Back in the 1950s, presidential aides worried that some American nutbar in a B-52 would drop the big one on the "Evil Empire."
    Movies based on such novels as 1958’s Red Alert (filmed in 1964 as Dr. Strangelove), Fail Safe and Seven Days in May (both released as films in 1962) traded on the fear that one flipped-out American flyboy could start World War III.
    Accept that basic premise and it only stands to reason that the Russkies would one day manage to close this important madman gap.
    All they ever needed was the capacity for a first strike. And now, according to CIA naval analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin), the submarine Red October just may have tipped the scales in Moscow's favour.
    "Now" is 1984, otherwise known as the Year 1 BG (Before Gorbachev).
    The boys in the basement are attempting to make sense of the fact that Red October is at large in the North Atlantic and that, following receipt of a letter from its Lithuanian-born captain, the Soviet high command has sent its own submarine fleet in apparent hot pursuit.
    Conclusion — Ramius has cracked, gone renegade and is going for a nuclear first strike.
    No, No, NO! says civilian Ryan, out of sync with the mood of the meeting.
    "I know the man!" Ryan argues that Ramius is attempting to defect.
    "We've got to help him!"
    The Hunt For Red October is a Classic Cold War thriller. As directed by action expert John (Die Hard)
McTiernan, Tom Clancy's tale of undersea intrigue is a breathlessly exciting blast from the Reaganesque past.
    Think of it as a game. When the NSC's Jeffrey Pelt (Richard Jordan) confesses to Ryan that "I'm a politician," he's honest enough to add, "which means I’m a cheat and a liar."
    Accept, then, that McTiernan's feature turns on an insideous bit of Ronbo-era double-think: If they develop a stealth submarine, it's got to be a first strike weapon; if we develop a stealth bomber, it’s to keep the peace.
    Think of McTiernan's picture as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with a Star Wars spin. Banish all thought of realpolitik and enjoy Connery’s magnificent, self-assured performance as a latter-day Capt. Nemo.
    Indeed, it’s hard not to enjoy all the performances in this edge-of-your seat adventure fantasy.
    The boys — among them Scott Glenn as unflappable American submarine commander Bart Mancuso, James Earl Jones as CIA top dog Admiral Greer, Sam Neill and Tim Curry as soulful Soviet naval officers — all have a terrific time playing with their multi-billion-dollar war toys.
    McTiernan, no slouch at building tension and generating suspense, does a bang-up job creating believable peril for them under the sea.
    Pass the popcorn and don't forget to add salt.
    Lots of salt.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1990. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: The Hunt for Red October was released at a time of Reaganesque triumphalism. The Soviet Union was just months away from its 1991 collapse, and American political economist Francis Fukuyama was hard at work on his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man. As a Canadian, raised in a time of (Lester) Pearsonian liberalism, I just wasn’t buying it. As a movie critic, I was especially not buying into Hollywood’s pop culture Manichaeism, with its rousing tales of good (us) versus evil (them). Simplistic escapism is one thing, but potboiler spy fiction read too much like status quo propaganda.
    Director John McTeirnan’s picture was the movie debut of Tom Clancy’s hero spook Jack Ryan. Introduced by Clancy in his 1984 novel The Hunt for Red October, Ryan was a nerd’s version of James Bond. Brighter and more domestic than the sex-driven secret policeman created by Ian Fleming in 1953  — and a better fit with the Christian-conservative image of the CIA — Ryan and his adventures have been the subject of nine novels and five feature films to date. He’s been played by four major male stars: Alec Baldwin (1990), Harrison Ford,(1992; 1994), Ben Affleck (2002) and Chris Pine (2014).
    MI6’s Bond, by comparison, has appeared in 26 pictures (with another due for release in 2019). Alec Baldwin’s Hunt for Red October co-star Sean Connery was the big screen’s first Bond, first appearing in 1962’s Dr. No (1962). He played Bond six more times, ending it all with 1983’s Never Say Never Again.
     And, because Bond really wasn’t much of a character, it quickly became all about the gadgets. Television picked up on the idea in such shows as Mission: Impossible, a seven-season series (1966-1973) that was followed by a two-season reboot (1988-1990) and a feature film franchise. Tom Cruise has starred as agent Ethan Hunt in all five movies released to date, and will be in a sixth, due in out July 2018.
    While I don’t object to action entertainment, I am put off by the normalization of the idea that all those gadgets are necessary to fight the evils conjured up primarily to justify the creation of all those gadgets. In the 21st century, we should be holding our governments (and corporate entities) to better account for the way they spend our money and deploy our precious creative resources. Instead, too many of us  seem to be buying the fake news.  
See also: Today’s additions to Reeling Back’s archive of submarine movies include 1975’s  The Land that Time Forgot, Gray Lady Down (1978), The Hunt for Red October (1990) and Crimson Tide (1995).
    Submarines are the principal setting of 1966’s Fantastic Voyage, Neptune Factor (1973) and The Abyss (1989). Additionally, they feature prominently in the plots of 1979’s Bear Island, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Buried on Sunday (1993).