Defect & Exile: The Hunt For Red October (PG)

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I revisited The Hunt For Red October recently and found it a far different film than I remembered.

I saw this one in the theater when I was nine and revisited it more than a dozen times in my teens, though I had not seen it in a decade when I started it a few nights ago. Baldwin bears down hard on the part, and so if you haven’t seen the movie recently, you might not recall that Jack Ryan is something of a bookish man who gets anxious about turbulence and turns green when he tries to look cool and smoke a cigarette with the boys. In the last decade, Alec Baldwin has so effectively refashioned himself a thickly jowled comic actor, it might be forgotten that when his career was beginning, he was a slickly coiffed seducer. The Hunt For Red October (1990) was Baldwin’s first major role and his first big hit, though he was a strange choice for CIA analyst Jack Ryan. The script crafts Ryan as an intellectual and perfectly unsuited for field work given his fear of flying. Baldwin was far too handsome for the part. His voice too sexy, his eyes too piercing. Simply going off the script, someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman would have been a more natural fit.

The bookishness of Red October‘s Ryan character was what caught my attention. Before my most recent viewing, I’ve entered a career as a classical educator, married and fathered two children. In previous viewings, the movie progressed inevitably toward a climactic shoot out. Now, nearly everything interesting The Hunt has to say seems spent by the time the guns are drawn. At the same time, even when I was young, I didn’t take this one for an action movie. At nine, I was impressed by the mood of the film. I remember telling my father that when I was an adult, I wanted my home lit after the manner of the sets in The Hunt for Red October. Surprisingly enough, this remains true. My wife regularly chides my strong preference for small table lamps over bright overhead fixtures, and it’s all quite valid— I prefer a room dim enough that it’s difficult to read. Cinematographer Jan de Bont evokes the submarine atmosphere in nearly every shot; all the exteriors are shot on overcast days or else at dusk. No sunlight is visible until the final ten seconds of the film. The inside of the Red October is black and silver, though most of the lamps and lights are blue.

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The interior shots of American ships and subs tend to favor red light.

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However, when the Americans board the Red October in the third act, their red lights follow them.

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The blue light in the Red October reflects Sean Connery’s cool, unhurried portrayal of Marko Ramius. When Ramius announces to his fellow defectors that, the day they left port, he posted a letter to Moscow announcing their intentions, his co-conspirators are shocked. Fully aware that the entire Russian navy is after them, Connery casually remarks, “Personally, I give us…. one chance in three” of making to America. From what source Ramius derives his confidence is not deeply explored, though director John McTiernan throws out a few fascinating clues. Early on, Ramius walks into his cabin and finds a Soviet political officer reading a Bible. The officer asks Ramius if he has been reading and underlining passages of Revelation and Ramius responds that the Bible belonged to his wife, though he keeps it “for sentimental reasons.” If Ramius is really the kind of man who kept a pious wife during the heyday of the Soviet Union, he’s obviously a man who plays by his own rules. Of all the relics and keepsakes his wife left behind, why would a Soviet sub captain keep a Bible? Ramius seems to have told his wife enough about his work that she spent her time thinking about the end of the world. Of her recent passing, the officer remarks, “I’m sorry, Comrade Captian. Your wife was… a beautiful woman,” and the pause suggests that describing her virtue is a testy matter. Was his wife known to not uphold Soviet virtues? And Ramius… is he similarly distanced from Soviet virtues? Is he a man of faith?

Stateside, Ryan begins putting together a theory as to why Ramius and his fancy new ship are being trailed by the Russian navy with orders to destroy her. In a tense meeting with upper brass, Ryan floats the idea that Ramius might be trying to defect. The detail to Ramius’ story which tips the scales in favor of defecting, at least for Ryan, is that Ramius set sail on the first anniversary of his wife’s passing. It just so happens, Ryan wrote a book about Marko Ramius and knows the man inside and out. Ryan wagers Ramius’ soul is so weighted that he would act like a poet, though this seems too human and too vaporous for most of the generals, who choke at the softness of Ryan’s theory. However, he gains a lone sympathetic ear and is commissioned to put his theory to work. He quickly finds himself at sea, then under the sea and inside the Dallas, an American sub tracking the Red October.

While scores of men are after the Red October, the story concerns itself with only two: Jack Ryan and Captain Viktor Tupelov (Stellan Skarsgård), both of whom are former students of Ramius. Ryan is a student of Ramius in the sense that he has poured over his life, studied his methods. On the other hand, Tupelov sat directly under Ramius in a Russian sub school, a place where Ramius earned the nickname “The Vilnius Schoolmaster.” When Tupelov gets a wire that he needs to find Ramius and sink the Red October, he is furious that the order is seven hours old and that he has been “sitting on the bottom like an addled schoolboy” wasting his time. It’s a telling line. Tupelov seems the student who never really cherished the role, while Ryan gladly accepts it. In the end, Tupelov’s arrogance gets him killed, but Ryan’s humility saves lives.

Before Ryan can meet Ramius face to face, he has a series of American captains to negotiate. They all seem skeptical of Ryan’s theory, but there also seems an anti-intellectual streak that runs through them. In order to keep a low profile while aboard American ships, Ryan is dressed up like an officer and then as a sailor, and neither captain takes this well. He’s a brain— what could he possibly understand about life in the field? While aboard the Dallas, Captain Bert Mancuso is in position to fire on the Red October, though Ryan convinces Mancuso that he knows Ramius so well, he can even say which direction Ramius will turn his boat when he doubles back to see if he is being followed. When he’s right, Mancuso and Ramius surface and communicate in Morse with their periscopes, and it is here they agree to meet face to face. Mancuso asks Ryan how he knew which direction Ramius would turn and Ryan responds, “I didn’t. I had a chance. I needed a break.” With a potential nuclear war on the horizon, the arbitrary, the precarious and the personal yet have significant parts to play— a point the best Cold War movies seem intent on making time and again, though perhaps not always in such a glib and witty manner. Jack Ryan’s lucky guess is an interesting entry into the task of fictionalizing the Cold War. Nearly all Cold War movies (the greatest of which is certainly The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) hinge on questions of epistemology. Who can be trusted? How do you know you can trust them? How do you know you know you can trust them? How do you know you know you know you can trust them? While those epistemological questions are often valuable, Ryan’s “I had a chance” is a brief but happy respite from the philosophical hand-wringing which often come with Cold War stories.

What grants The Hunt for Red October a lasting potency which many war movies of the last generation lack (remember The Rules of Engagement? How about Courage Under Fire? Green Zone? The Kingdom?) is the enigmatic presentation of Ramius. Ramius defects on the one year anniversary of his wife’s death, which suggests he holds the Soviet Union responsible for it, though at one point he remarks to co-conspirator Vasily Borodin (Sam Neil), “I widowed her the day I married her,” a claim which opens up more questions than it answers. While the novel nuances her death, McTiernan is cryptic. The film never judges Ramius for his slaughter of political officer Ivan Putin, though there is some insinuation that Ramius has made the act morally allowable in his own mind by announcing his plans to defect before leaving Russian soil. Are we to understand Ramius’ slaughter of Putin as an act of war? War seems to breed a curious logic in men, though most war films tend to deal with this logic in a thudding, artless manner, either saying too much or else relegating the warrior’s brain to the realm of the unknowable. Red October suffers from neither of these faults, though. For Ramius, defecting is an act of poetic justice, though the moral mathematics that make it just are only partially disclosed.

The Hunt might take a few hits for setting up a world where the only good Soviet was one who wanted to be like Us, though the mood of the film is richly Russian. The soundtrack is a lush collection of Russian hymns and patriotic songs and songs meant to sound Russian, all of which add dignity, not irony, to Ramius’ work. The underwater shots are of a blue hue which mirrors the interior lighting of the Russian sub. The Hunt is at home in the Russian ethos, despite the appropriate digs that are made at Soviet politics.

As the film closes, Ryan and Ramius stand beside one another as the Red October glides past the little island where Ryan’s father taught him to fish. Ramius says his grandfather taught him to fish in a similar place, then he remarks that Ryan hasn’t asked him why he defected. Ryan returns, “Well, I figured you would tell me when you were ready.” Ramius is evasive, though, and simply remarks that some in Moscow think the Russian dispute with America should be settled in a moment, with bombs, and that the Red October was built for that purpose. Ramius finishes with a quotation, “ ‘And the sea will grant each man new hope as sleep brings dreams of home’… Christopher Columbus.”

The sea has delivered Ramius into a new hope, yet he is a man who will dream of the place he left. We are left with a sense that with every act of defection, there is also something of self-imposed exile.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books, collects records and jogs to work. He and his wife have two children, both of whom have seven names. He tweets at @joshgibbs and blogs for the CiRCE Institute.

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