In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
Originally posted on Cinema76.
I am 34 years old. I am unmarried and I have no children. I don’t really have a career to speak of, and I am nowhere near considering buying a house. Basically, I’m doing things right, at least by way of me wanting to maintain the freedom required to do whatever I want at any given moment without answering to anybody for any reason at all. Yet despite my inclination to shirk any and all adult responsibilities I still feel a little bit like a dad. I tend to reject hip, new things, oftentimes purposefully mispronouncing the cultural item in question just to show how proudly out of touch I am with kids these days. I identify with the guy at the end of every power tool commercial who folds his arms while giving a proud “job well done” look to the camera. I like what I like and I have no room for anything else, except shitty puns. I love shitty puns almost as much as love scoffing in general. So yes, even without kids I am becoming a total dad. As such, it’s about time I let some Tom Clancy into my life, don’t ya think? Read the whole series here.
I sure do! And having never seen a single Jack Ryan film, I’m going to cross them ALL of of my Shame List!
Oh, and just to be clear: I’m never having kids. They’re way too sticky for me.
The Hunt for Red October (1990)
Director: John McTiernan
Writers: Tom Clancy (novel), Larry Ferguson, Donald E. Stewart, David Shaber
Stars: Sean Connery, Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, Sam Neill, Joss Ackland, Tim Curry, Courtney B. Vance, Stellan Skarsgard, every actor ever.
Jack Ryan played by: Alec Baldwin and his comically dark hair that I’m no longer used to. It seems fake. Is it fake? It might be fake.
Plot: In 1984 a Soviet submarine captain takes the most badass submarine known to man and abandons his orders, going rogue and using the sub’s revolutionary propulsion system to set a course for the United States. Why? No one knows, but Jack Ryan has a few ideas…
Review: The preconceived notions that I had about this movie (and I’m assuming all Jack Ryan flicks) were wrong. I thought it would be a politically charged action movie, when really it’s got very little action and the politics aren’t explored too deeply. Sure, it’s a Cold War thriller, but that’s just a backdrop to inform the tensions between US and Russia. Really, any two countries could have been placed at the center of this story granted they weren’t too fond of one another. Thee plot would work just the same in a functional sense. Unlike a lot of the films which filled the multiplex in the decade prior, there’s not much here by way of American pride (or in a lot of cases, straight jingoism). Heck, it could even be read as a criticism of governmental bureaucracy. So no, this is not an action-packed war movie in any sense, but rather the story of two men tugging at layers of red tape to seemingly opposite ends. And one of those men, Jack Ryan, is barely even in the movie.
In eschewing my preconceptions, the first act of the movie was a little difficult to get into. I spent a fair amount of my viewing energy learning how to watch it. It certainly didn’t help that my “submarine movie” knowledge was pretty limited going in. I’ve never seen Crimson Tide. I’ve only seen U-571 once. And in the days immediately prior to watching this movie, had suffered through the utterly abysmal Hunter Killer. Once I got settled in, however, I found The Hunt For Red October to be a blast.
I can see why dads love this movie. The dialogue is of the precise flavor they tend to enjoy. Meaning that it’s crisp, concise, and spoken deliberately. It has the density of an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, but little wordplay and a much slower pace. The all-business, “just the facts, ma’am” approach allows the characters to come through in the performances, which is good when you have such a potentially showy cast. It also hides a lot of the expository dialogue behind the needs of a procedural. Short of the few hammy moments in which Jack Ryan clumsily tells himself the plot in the mirror (he has a handful of unintentionally funny “eureka!” moments), it works. This is a plot-heavy movie, with enough double crosses to potentially lose a disengaged viewer. I appreciate that in adapting what is likely a dense novel, the screenwriters made effort to bring the audience into the action rather than shaving away potentially convoluted plot beats.
The direction of the film is what impressed me most. Submarines make for a very limited geography, as do board rooms and offices. Almost all of the movie, short of the exciting air drop scene, takes place in a cramped, static environment, and McTiernan has employed a variety of techniques to make it watchable and engaging, while also capturing the claustrophobia of each setting. On land it all comes down to lighting. Be it the dramatic look of a darkened conference room, lit by the bulb of an overhead projector (a look which PowerPoint technology has all but eliminated from cinema), or the oaky coziness of a bougie senator’s office, each new scene feels fresh and real. The men who work in these offices are being mocked a little bit by Clancy, I think. It’s as if he’s condemning the swiftness with which they can sign away the lives of servicemen from a place of unimpeachable safety. This makes Jack Ryan, who is more than willing to get his hands dirty, seem exceptional in comparison to his colleagues.
Funny too that Ryan never advertises the fact that he was once a very unfortunate soldier, instead letting those who know his history speak up for him whenever doubt is cast on his credentials.
At sea, the direction becomes that much more difficult. How does a filmmaker create the geography of a sub while also creating the illusion that these performers are all in a tube at the bottom of the ocean? Hunter Killer failed miserably at creating this illusion, but Red October excels. Shots of the submarine’s exterior are achieved almost entirely through the use of models. Underwater CGI pretty much always fails to suspend disbelief, but the tangibility of real water and real, in-frame models works wonderfully. Within the sub, McTiernan keeps a relatively static camera, except during scenes in which the sub is being maneuvered. During these moments, Dutch angles suggest motion. It’s similar to the way motion is depicted inside of the Enterprise in Star Trek, only not as campy.
In fact, the submarine scenes, especially during the home stretch of the third act, feel a lot like Star Trek. The captain barks orders, the crew repeats them, the camera tilts, and then the crew declares whether or not the move was a success. Lather, rinse, repeat. Directed well, it’s exciting stuff. So much so, that when a more classically shot action scene occurs in which Ryan must hunt down a rogue saboteur, it feels tacked-on and hokey.
Overall, The Hunt for Red October rocks. It’s exciting, fun, basic-but-smart dad material that flies by. Eminently watchable on all fronts. I should mention that it’s not very flashy. Dads HATE flash.
- When dealing with potentially wonky accent work, it’s important that either the entire cast commits to it, or nobody does. Red October chooses the latter option and it’s the right move. You’re never going to get Connery to nail an accent that isn’t his own, so why bother?
- Speaking of diction, Connery mispronounces “adversary” and it makes my tumbly squirm.
- Rather than having dads read subtitles (a task they tend to hate more than trying understand the ins and outs of a widescreen presentation), the actors all speak English. During the first few scenes the Russians are subtitled, but a cleverly staged conversation phases their dialogue into English, while making it clear that the characters are still indeed speaking Russian.
- The glassware is incredible. Everyone drinks from beautiful vessels and it makes me squee with delight.
- This is a “day at work” movie, which I love.
- Many, many times Jack Ryan is asked “when’s the last time you got some sleep?” Every dad on the planet wishes he could get more sleep, and I am positive this was written in to make them feel appreciated.
Best line: “Listen, I’m a politician, which means I’m a cheat and a liar, and when I’m not kissing babies I’m stealing their lollipops. But it also means I keep my options open.”
Worst line: “I know Raimus, General. He’s nearly a legend in the submarine community.”
“The hard part about playing chicken is knowin’ when to flinch.”
Yeah, that’s how chicken works.
Continuity: This is the first Jack Ryan flick, but my assumption is that the series plays it all pretty loose. I will be tracking the timeline henceforth.
Let’s look into Jack Ryan a bit.
Age: It’s not expressly mentioned in the film, but Baldwin was 32 at the time, which is gross. How is it that he still seems like such a grown up relative to my being a kid? He’s two years younger than me and he works for the government, whereas I’m pretty sure any governmental body would see fit to keep me at a distance for fear of me pressing the wrong button or breaking something that can’t be replaced. Per the Wikipedia page for the character, Jack Ryan was born in 1950, making him 34 at the time of the events of the film.
Job: “Analyst”. That’s all we get. He is referred to as a doctor, and at one point he says “I write books for the CIA” but otherwise he’s exactly what I’ve always understood him to be – A government guy.
Family: He’s got a wife (Gates McFadden) and a daughter who show up for a scene to give him some stakes and some humanity (I’m only exaggerating a little when I say he’s barely in this movie). It’s nice, and I guess it has to be there.
What we know about him: He’s an ex-marine who survived a helicopter crash that left him with a discharge and a permanent back injury. He is employed by the CIA, and seems to be called in whenever they need a fresh set of eyes on something. He seems a bit miffed that he can’t be a soldier anymore, and is thus very willing to be of assistance in whatever way he can. Basically, he’s a dad’s representative dream. Dads love utility, and Jack Ryan is utility incarnate.
Oh, and Jack Ryan hates turbulence.