‘Crimson Tide’ 25th Anniversary: Denzel Washington vs. Gene Hackman – Whoever Wins, We Win!

The 2020 summer movie season is on hold due to unforeseen circumstances. 25 years ago, Crimson Tide kicked off the summer of 1995 with the first big action movie. It was Denzel Washington vs. Gene Hackman backed up by a powerhouse cast of future stars like Viggo Mortensen, James Gandolfini, Ryan Phillippe and Steve Zahn.

[Spoiler alert: This article contains spoilers for the movie Crimson Tide.]

Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman in Crimson Tide
L-R: Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman | Hollywood Pictures/Getty Images

Submarine movies are traditionally full of tension as commanders strategize with big, bulky seacrafts in the depths of the ocean. Crimson Tide adds a battle of wits between officers on the ship.

‘Crimson Tide’ is an intense ‘what if?’

First Officer Hunter (Washington) joins Captain Ramsey (Hackman)’s submarine as a last minute replacement. In the midst of a conflict with Russia, the U.S.S. Alabama receives the order to launch nuclear missiles. They receive another message that gets cut off during a battle with a Russian submarine. Hunter and Ramsey disagree about how to proceed. 

Crimson Tide plants the seed of this question earlier in the film. As the officers are getting to know each other, Ramsey asks Hunter if the U.S. should have bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hunter diplomatically says, “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here.” Ramsey simply says yes. It’s going to be the critical thinker vs. the “don’t question orders” mentality of the military. It could be a scathing attack on the chain of command. It’s also good drama. 

‘Crimson Tide’ creates a powder keg

Crimson Tide spends time letting minor incidents escalate on the Alabama before the big conflict explodes. There is a fire in the galley, and Ramsey orders a drill immediately after. That’s intense and shows what the crew deals with on a daily basis.

Director Tony Scott moves the camera through the halls like no submarine movie before, tilting diagonally as if to fit through tight spaces. They have some horizontal shots that must have used a half submarine. 

Denzel Washington | Hollywood Pictures/Getty Images

These incidents keep the pace up, but they also fuel the dramatic conflict. Do you run a drill after an emergency to test crew? Yeah, war wouldn’t pause for a kitchen fire but do you risk safety for a test? They do suffer a casualty. The drill also serves the narrative function of showing the procedure so when Hunter breaks it, you feel the impact. 

Ramsey and Hunter also argue over tough love vs. positive reinforcement. Both are valid schools of thought to motivate a crew, although the military traditionally favors Ramsey’s drill sergeant attitude. It’s a philosophical argument over hurt feelings until it isn’t. 

Denzel Washington vs. Gene Hackman May As Well Be World War III

If the second message came through, there would be no Crimson Tide. They’d know their orders and have to do whatever they said. With the second message cut off, it raises a poignant question. If you launch and you’re wrong you started WWIII. If you don’t launch and you’re wrong America gets bombed. 

You can infer answers, like why would a follow up message be anything other than a correction to the first? Ramsey raises the point that it could be Russian fake transmission so it’s possible opposing forces are trying to intercept them. Hunter counters that the Alabama isn’t the only submarine able to fire. If Alabama doesn’t respond, there are redundancies in place. Ramsey asks what if those subs were taken out. Every sound argument has possible holes, and it’s startling ambiguity for a summer blockbuster.

Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington in Crimson Tide
L-R: Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman | Hollywood Pictures/Getty Images

Hunter relieves Ramsey of command under his authority as the XO. Ramsey losing his cool and swearing probably gave Hunter cause. If Ramsey remained level headed, maybe he could have claimed Hunter was being insubordinate. He had a valid point. Hunter had no combat experience. Being on the front lines is different than the theoretical analysis of Hunter’s experience.  

Ramsey and Hunter one up each other for the rest of the movie. It may seem like Crimson Tide is about the flaws in chain of command. It’s actually about the beauty of it. No one person has total control, not even Hunter. Every step of the way there are people under them who can question an order and withhold their function until they are satisfied with the orders. There may be punishments if you disobey a superior officer, but there are people who can make a tough call if they have to.

More ‘Crimson Tide’ action 

What’s a submarine movie without a torpedo scene? Crimson Tide has two. The first time a russian sub launches torpedos, the Alabama deflects one and evades the other. The second time, the Russians miss and Hunter fires back. One still gets through though, and the Alabama almost sinks to crush depth. That’s intense action regardless of the moral tension at work. 

Hunter still has to make tough calls that cost crew lives. He doesn’t get to be the righteous hero sticking it to Ramsey. Leadership is hard and Crimson Tide makes that abundantly clear. 

Crimson Tide | Hollywood Pictures/Getty Images

A week after Crimson Tide would see the return of the Die Hard franchise. The big summer had Braveheart fight for freedom and Apollo 13 return home. Casper the Friendly Ghost got a movie and Batman returned Forever while Willy got freed for the second time. Waterworld was then most expensive movie ever made. 

It was a good summer that will be fun to revisit for those anniversaries, in lieu of a current summer movie season. Crimson Tide was the only one that left an impact on opposing problem solving styles that remains fascinating regardless of how the events of the film resolve.