… I thought I step outside my normal genres of movies and watch a Cold War classic “thriller,” based on the Tom Clancy eponymous novel, which was published in 1984. The novel has been fairly wide-read, with 1500 plus reviews posted at Amazon. The movie version, directed by John Tiernan, was released in 1990. And the movie has more than 3000 reviews. In evaluating an item I normally try to compare it against other items within its category. This can sometimes lead to some screwy results, as it were, when one is evaluating a “torrid romance novel.” In both that case, and in the case of “Red October,” how much “disbelief” is it appropriate to suspend? In addition, I could not help but compare this movie with one produced almost three decades earlier, with some common themes: “Dr. Strangelove.”
“Red October” is the latest super-secret Soviet submarine, with a new propulsion system that permits it to run very quietly, almost undetectable by normal sonar. It is named for the month in which the Russian Revolution of 1917 occurred, which actually happened in November, if one is keeping track on the Gregorian calendar (it occurred in October, on the Julian calendar, which was operative in the Russian Orthodox Catholic world at the time.) “Red October” is under the command of Captain Marko Ramius, who is not Russian, but Lithuanian. He is at the very top of his game in the Russian navy, having trained many of the other sub commanders. It is hard to imagine anyone playing that part better than Sean Connery. James Earl Jones is Admiral Greer in the American navy. Alex Baldwin plays the part of Jack Ryan, a famous character in his own right, who continues to live on today. Ryan is a book-writing CIA operative, also at the top of his game.
Ramius has decided to defect to the Americans, taking the sub with him. Early on, it is demonstrated that he knows the “enemy” (the Americans) well. Although his name is not mentioned in the movie, in the book that Ramius carries in his cabin, the famous quote by J. Robert Oppenheimer (“that fella up there in Los Alamos,” as he was once described to me), “Now I am Death, the Destroyer of Worlds,” taken from the Bhagavad-Gita, is underlined. It is the boat’s political officer, Ivan PUTIN (I can’t make that up!) who questions Ramius about this. Ramius blames his wife for underlining it! Later on, Ramius draws on the precedence of Cortez burning his ships once he got to Mexico. Adding to the glossy patina of intellectualism of some of the characters, the very clever American sonar technician enjoys his opera!
The two-hours plus flew by. It is a “thriller,” after all, with enough twists and turns in the plot to keep it very interesting. Ramius had written a letter telling the Soviet naval leadership that he was defecting, and thus the entire Russian navy is after him. The Americans can’t be sure he is defecting, or going to blow up NYC and DC. Every second counts, of course. Several bushel baskets full of “disbelief” must be suspended, for example when the American sub commander, who has Ramius in his sights, must surface to pick up Ryan, who is being helicoptered to the sub, in a chopper with not quite enough fuel, and he drops in the ocean to keep his rendezvous. Ugh. And that is just one example.
In “Dr. Strangelove,” it is an obsessed rogue American general who launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. There is a lot of slapstick gallows-type humor as the Russians and Americans work together to thwart the attack. In “Red October,” the “rogue” Russian commander is not depicted as being crazy and the gallows-type humor is missing, but there are similar scenes of the Russian and American leadership working together, sometimes at cross-purposes. I think “Strangelove,” even with its deliberately exaggerated humor (“a fella could have a good time in Vegas with all that”), is a much better depiction of the real world than “Red October,” with its heroic CIA operatives jumping off the helicopter cable into the icy North Atlantic.
Overall, the time did “fly by,” and I am most surprised that no other reviewer has called out this fantasy as being even more unlikely than “Major King Kong” (Slim Pickens) riding that nuclear bomb down to its target (Note: James Earl Jones also played in “Strangelove” as Lt. Lothar Zogg). For “Red October,” a “screwy” 3-stars.