"Crimson Tide"

Movement 1B in a critical exquisite corpse project analyzing films by Tony Scott. This entry focuses on _Crimson Tide_ (1995).
Ryland Walker Knight


This article is part of the critical project Tony Scott: A Moving Target in which an analysis of a scene from a Tony Scott film is passed anonymously to the next participant in the project to respond to with an analysis of his or her own.

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Here we have a relatively simple scene from what I would argue is the pivotal Tony Scott movie, Crimson Tide (1995), in large part because it is, I might also argue, a relatively simple movie. In fact, when it came out, one of my dad's girlfriends liked to joke about how it's "the one with the two macho guys who just yell, 'I want to push the button!' and 'You don't get to push the button!' at each other for 90 minutes." That's putting it just a little too simple for my tastes, but, you get the point: the stakes are huge but the action is confined to talking (in a sealed set full of screens/monitors, I might add, but that's a topic for another entry in our project I hope) and a little horsing around with guns. Sure, there's an enemy sub that fires on our heroes, but that's just to keep you interested in what's really at stake: a negotiation of trust as the, excuse me, water mark for civilization.

So to kick this thing off, I chose the conversation that starts that negotiation in earnest. Denzel Washington plays "XO" Hunter, whom Gene Hackman's Captain Ramsey has previously interviewed from an unquestioned position of power. This is the first scene where they are presented on the same field of play (literally). This is the moment before the dive, before the film descends into its mechanics.

Hunter and Ramsey—I so desperately want to say Washington and Hackman—are standing on the sail, or "conning tower" per Wikipedia, admiring the view. Ramsey has offered Hunter a cigar, and says this moment, before the dive, is his favorite part of the journey, that he doesn't trust air he can't see. Already we have our first conflict ahead: the captain of the submarine doesn't like confined spaces, and he smokes. A cheap Hollywood joke, perhaps, but fitting for the structure of the dispute ahead for these two characters/men, and terrifically American, which is to say inherently hypocritical. In any case, they enjoy the moment. There is a sunset. Ramsey appreciates that Hunter allows a silence, then he lays out his rules for what will determine and no doubt motivate the central contradiction of perspectives that the film plays out. Ramsey tells Hunter he "can't stand save asses and won't abide kiss asses." This line is delivered over a shot of Hunter, thinking, letting those words register on him, as they apply to him. Anybody who has seen the movie knows that he does not look to kiss Ramsey's ass, though he does look to save the ass of the world.

Again, it's a simple scene, and by a lot of standards there is far too much coverage. There are over twenty edits inside two minutes, but each serves rhythm and performance. Amidst all the talk of his gifts for making images (and this sequence is really kind of beautiful to behold, especially with the windshield in front of our leads reflecting the swell of the ocean), Tony Scott rarely gets enough credit for the performances in his films.This scene has a lot of tones, going from magisterial to intimate and then to tactical before some levity and back to the grandeur of military process as the ship dives. Some might say it's the writing that's great, that the coverage dictates a fussy kind of editing, but the back and forth between the leads strikes me as quintessential Hollywood storytelling. The staging of the scene, how the films knows when to separate these characters, is a prime example of what makes movies a perfect medium for undertaking a conversation such as this movie provides. We might even boil down the tin drum melodrama that follows like so: it's not with guns or nukes or buttons, but with words that determine the ethical answer to any given conflict. Tony Scott movies put you in the mix of things as a consequence of the characters being in the midst of chaos and the thrill is our privileged remove to see how they react.


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