Year in, year out, from hot war to cold, you can always count on a good submarine thriller. Something about the combination of cramped spaces, hollow reverberating sounds,* and being stuck in a metal tube beneath thousands of cubic meters of water just lends itself to high-stakes tension and pressure-cooker drama. That's even true for something like The Hunt for Red October, one of the all-time great examples of the subgenre, while being perversely disinterested in doing the things that submarine thrillers do especially well. The heart and soul of the classic submarine story - can we be silent enough to evade detection, and are we at immediate risk of imploding and dying a particularly wretched form of death by drowning? - simply do not apply; indeed, the "avoiding detection" motif is done away with by the film's very concept. For the Soviet nuclear submarine Красный Oктябрь, which I will henceforth refer to as Red October to avoid seeming like a dick, is the first vessel of its kind capable of almost entirely silent running using a water-based propulsion system that sounds hardly different from the backround noise of the ocean.

It's a very techie idea that anchored the first novel by Tom Clancy, pulp fiction's most beloved tech-head, and that's also the story's gravest weakness: for all the time it spends trying to analyse the mind of Red October's captain, this is not a tale about human beings as rich psychological actors, but about human beings as the cogs in a massive intelligence mechanism. Such ground details as it provides are almost totally superficial: we see our primary cog, CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin), interacting briefly with his wife and daughter (who are, between them, half of the film's women with speaking parts, and all of the film's women with names), but the presence of a family back home informs nothing about who he is, what he does, or why. Far more important are the details of how he executes his job, where he came by certain pieces of information, and what his training consists of.

None of this, by the way, is inherently problematic. The Hunt for Red October is certainly a soulless machine, but it isn't pretending otherwise. Meanwhile, it's also a machine that operates with gorgeously, glistening smoothness, ticking from scene to scene and beat to beat with perfect timing to crank the tension on the viewer up to almost unendurable levels, even though the opening title cards (which situate the story in 1984, an ass-saving measure when the Soviet Union collapsed before the film's 1990 debut) basically spell out what happens, generally, at the end. That is the reason that you hire John McTiernan to direct your movie, if you are a producer in the late 1980s: having made Die Hard in successive years, McTiernan immediately established himself as the reigning king of blunt action thrillers that escalated flawlessly from first scene to last. It's a skill that doesn't entirely inform The Hunt for Red October, which climaxes with a gunfight in an engine room that feels altogether smallish and forced after everything that has preceded it. It's also the one outright "action scene" in a movie that would much rather ratchet the tension tighter and tighter than do anything that might release the tension; compared to McTiernan's two preceding films, there's considerably less humor (which isn't to say that there's none) and virtually no direct face-offs.

I have not, anyway, clarified the plot: Captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery, history's least-convincing Russian) has gone AWOL with Red October, and the Russian government is freaking out, very quietly and secretively. Meanwhile, the CIA - and Ryan in particular - have uncovered evidence of the boat's existence just in time to be aware that it's gone missing, and the consensus of opinion is that Ramius is planning to mount an insane attack on the U.S. mainland. Ryan alone believes otherwise, suspecting that Ramius is actually hoping to defect, meaning that he has to keep both sides of the Cold War from blowing Red October to hell and back.

The rugged, much-doctored script (ultimately credited to just Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart) makes the important decision to clarify relatively early on that yes, Ramius is looking to defect; it allows the film to copy the estimable model of Vertigo, and present a story more about answering "how" and "when" instead of "what" and "why". And this gives The Hunt for Red October a sustained tension that absolutely shouldn't be possible for a 134-minute film that consists for about half of its running time of a bookish Alec Baldwin describing concepts to bureaucrats. It's cunning and ballsy: American spy fiction was not accustomed to a hero of such pragmatic, low-key skills (the story feels not unlike a more militaristic and less psychologically acute version of the spy novels by British author John Le Carré, mired in realpolitik instead of intrigue and romance), and say what one will about his prose, plots, or politics, but Clancy's invention what amounts to nerd hero who saves the day because he's well-read in technical areas is damned admirable; Baldwin's performance of the character is just charming and movie-star-like to make him appealing and watchable, and is to me the secret behind the film working, even if Connery is higher-billed and gets more screen time. By all means, non-accent or no, Connery holds the screen with potent authority, and Sam Neill as his increasingly frayed ally/subordinate gives the film's most evocatively physical performance; I just find the Ryan-on-land scenes more gripping and unconventional and successful than the submarine scenes, which are deflated somewhat by McTiernan and cinematographer/future action director Jan de Bont failing to accentuate the cramped, claustrophobic feeling of being trapped on a submarine (Red October is, frankly, rather airy as movie subs go).

Still, even if it could be improved in bits and pieces here or there, this is still a snug, viciously fast-paced movie; its pulsing momentum (and explosive, albeit somewhat generic, Basil Poledouris score) makes it awfully difficult to think about what's not working while you're watching, because what is working is so feverish and unforgiving. It's not exactly a brainy thriller, but it is a thriller about using one's brains, which is almost as good; it is, moreover, a film about using one's brains when everything in the entire world is going to hell and one needs to make the right decision now. That's a lovely combination if you can get it, and the grubby real-world cant to the scenes in The Hunt for Red October, even as the stakes are decidely overwrought and pulpy, leave us with one of the most delectably taut, racing thrillers of its generation: a perfect construction that's to exciting to watch to bother caring that it's kind of hollow.

Reviews in this series
The Hunt for Red October (McTiernan, 1990)
Patriot Games (Noyce, 1992)
Clear and Present Danger (Noyce, 1994)
The Sum of All Fears (Robinson, 2002)
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (Branagh, 2014)

*The genre is a mainstay of the Oscar sound editing category, including our present subject, the winner of that prize in 1990.