It’s hard to imagine, but there are individual days from before I went to college – days from high school, no less, when “the days blended together like melted celluloid,” as Woody Allen once said – the details of which that I can remember with alarming clarity.
May 19, 1995 is one of those days. I’m glad I remember it. This is one of the few days I remember. The few. The proud. The….
Well, I get ahead of myself. The next word in the above paragraph was to be, had type been cast, “Marines.” Strangely (or in just a lame attempt to make this post “flow well) enough, one reason why I remembered the day so well was because of something military-related.
May 19, 2005 was a Friday. The 1994-1995 school year was near a close, and, as I recall things, my homework load (and other loads) were light that weekend (yeah, like I recall the latter). The homework load must have been light; if it had not been, I would not have remembered this day at all. (To truly explain what this statement means would require poking into a proverbial valley of darkness a stick so deeply that by contrast, Frodo’s mission to destroy the ring would come off as mere taking out the trash).
As soon as school let out (2:12 P.M.) on May 19, my father picked me up (I normally took the bus, but we wanted to get somewhere – fast), and took me to the grand opening of – I don’t care what its actual name is – the Broadway Mall Multiplex in Hicksville (that’s the name I remember). This theater celebrated its grand opening – you’re not gonna believe how – by, starting early in the morning of May 19th, running a Star Trek movie marathon on one of its screens. Films one through four, six, and the recently-released seventh Star Trek film, played continuously on one screen. Film # 5 did not play because for some reason, the theater decided, when film #4 ended, to show only two more films, and gave the audience a choice of which two it wanted to see. The audience didn’t specify… It simply said, “Not #5.”
I came in approximately ten minutes before the close of Star Trek III. My first memory of Star Trek – ever – was seeing Star Trek IV (1986) on the big screen, so you can imagine what a thrill it was to see, if only for ten minutes, on the big screen, a Star Trek film I’d never seen on such a screen before. Just amazing.
And it was grand to see 4, 6 and 7 “as it was meant to be” (a certain character from #6 would appreciate that line) again, too.
At some point, there was an intermission between two showings. So, my father and I did what any sensible person would do – we went in to another theater and caught a large part of another film. The cinema actually let us do this, because the price of the ticket for the entire Star Trek marathon was very high, and because, as I remember, my father really needed a place to sit down (no, the name of the film was not “The Past is Prologue.”)
The name of the film – and here’s where the military thing comes in – was Crimson Tide (I’m making it sound like no one’s ever heard of this movie), which had opened a week earlier. We came in at about the 20-minute mark, and left at about the midway (so to speak) point. What a riveting experience those 40 minutes – the set-up, the introduction and intensification of the film’s major conflict, and the best set pieces all occurring within that time – proved to be.
The film, as you may (i.e. do) recall (I wouldn’t be writing this entry if it weren’t, on some level, my own attempt to do my own version of keyboard commandoing by linking the film’s story to our present-day military atmosphere) involved a mutiny on a nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Crimson Tide (named after the football team).
Now, anyone suborning or inciting mutiny on such a vessel, at a time when the captain of such a ship (played in the movie by Gene Hackman) could launch a nuclear attack upon confirmation of emergency transmission that he was authorized to do so (which basically meant the captain could launch whenever he felt like it, since he already possessed the codes; the transmission merely gave him the go-ahead to open the safe) would seem to be committing a spectucularly stupid act – as an Admiral investigating the mutiny (an uncredited Jason Robards) implies at the end of the film as he questions the captain and his XO, Hunter (Denzel Washington), who launched the mutiny.
The story, alarmingly enough, was based upon an amalgamation of events that actually transpired. In the early ’90’s, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, several rogue former Soviet nuclear subs were commandeered by that all-encompassing term, “terrorists,” who threatened to launch the subs’ warheads. The subs, it turned out, either did not have the capability of launching the missiles; the attempts to launch failed; or the subs were intercepted before any damage could be done (I really should research this; I sound like an idiot without giving more specifics).
Anyway, in the movie, a nutjob rebel from one of the Soviet republics that is always slaughtering people (I know – which one?) leads a revolution and commandeers four nuclear subs. The Crimson Tide, patrolling the region where these subs are suspected to be positioned (and, according to the NSA, suspected to be planning to launch their warheads at), receives an emegency message, authentic, which indicates, “authorization of launch of nuclear missiles has been authorized.” As it just so happens, an Akula Russian sub, shortly before receipt of the transmission, was detected by the Crimson Tide, meaning that sixty minutes after receipt of the transmission, that sub, which the NSA has identified as one of the terrorists’, will be nuked by the Crimson Tide (from a run silent, run deep, safe distance, of course).
As the sixty-minute clock counts down, with the Captain (Ramsey) literally wetting himself over the idea of launching a nuclear strike, the wrench is thrown into the works. The Crimson Tide at this point has dived to a distance sufficiently below the surface that, when a second emergency transmission alert is announced, the sub, not wanting to elevate itself lest it be detected, floats a buoy in the hopes that the alert signal will be amplified. As the buoy is floated, however (we see the ropes to which the buoy is attached unravel), a winch becomes loose, in the process shaking the ship up for a few seconds. The transmission is eventually received, but because of the jolt to the ship, the entire transmission was not communicated. The message simply says something to the effect of, “Crimson Tide re: launch of nuclear missiles,” and then ends.
The Captain is unfazed by the message. He believes that as long as another one is not forthcoming, and given that only five minutes are left on the clock, to request that the transmission be duplicated is a deadly waste of time, and an implicit violation of orders (of the orders in the first message). He believes, not unreasonably, that the other ship is arming its missiles (as might be the other three), and that since there is no evidence that the incomplete message instructed the Crimson Tide to stand down, the attack must go forward.
His position is squarely opposed by the XO, who, although the film subtly attempts to get us to side with, stacks the deck by having the Captain come off as a warmonger. The XO is not a particularly honorable man, and there is a terrific scene where George Dzundza, as Chief of the Boat, quietly explains to the XO that the Chief’s loyalty to his country outweighs his loyalty to either man’s position, to either man. Neither man, we ultimately see, even if the film does not, gets the Chief’s point.
The XO believes that if the missiles are launched as planned, one or more of the terrorist ships will retaliate, and, in true almost-Cuban Missile Crisis style, the REAL World War III will start (spoiler: perhaps you know how the movie will end now. I did, but was so caught up in the World War III between Hackman and Washington that I wasn’t even thinking about the ending at all, let alone that the nature thereof was a foregone conclusion). The Washington character urges that the full contents of the message be received.
The rest of the movie involves, in what precise order I cannot recall, command of the boat exchaging hands between the two men on several occassions as a mutiny by Hunter and “counter-mutiny” by Ramsey are effected, while we are still left with the incomplete message.
Finally, Hackman regains control of the ship, and is just about to launch the missiles when……. The complete message, which says, “terminate launch, all missiles” comes in.
The susequent inquiry into the mutiny, held by the Robards character, is an eye-opener. He says, “On the record, you both performed with valor, bravery, blah, blah, blah.” “Off the record, you’ve created one hell of a mess.” Notably, he does not say how he would have resolved the situation, nor does the movie tell us what military protocol or law, if any, is applicable, or how. The scariest moment of the entire film, perhaps, comes at the very end, when we are told (as if to imply that this fictional story had something to do with it) that the President of the United States has sole access to nuclear launch codes, or something to that effect.
Is this progress?