Time selected as its Person of the Year 2007, Vladimir Putin, President (Prime Minister as of this spring) of Russia, former FSB (successor to the KGB) chief, and despotic leader who imposed stability on a nation in economic and political chaos. A $US 200 billion debt paid off, rapid economic growth, and a restoration of national pride can be attributed to Putin. His vision for the New Russia is as a major world player, possibly an antagonist to Western hegemony, or perhaps a wary ally. Either way, Putin is a pragmatist, not an ideologue, which makes him a potential threat to US interests. In commemoration of the resurgence of Russia, I would like to reexamine a bit of Cold War cinema, The Hunt for Red October.
Published in 1984 by Tom Clancy, HFRO was inspired by an actual successful defection by a Russian officer in 1961. Clancy is a conservative author who specializes in techno-thrillers, novels that are long on precise and accurate technical details and short on character and political reality. These novels are the epitome of weapons fetishizing, entire pages devoted to dissecting the make and performance of toys like the Aegis surface-to-air missile system, antiship missiles, and innumerable other multimillion dollar systems that are of little use today. Much like the bulk of 80s action cinema, the weapon and the war are the reason we exist, and muddy political agendas simply do not fit into this world view. This agenda is sold exceedingly well, and a public fearful of the Soviet threat ate it up during the height of the Reagan era. HFRO and its ilk are cool, efficient, and remarkably seductive in the way the reader is drawn into patriotic fervor via the magnificent phallic machines that bring American pride, honor, and freedom to the world. American ingenuity and the ability to create these fantastic toys is all that stood against the dark, foreboding challenge of the Evil Empire. There were good Russians in Clancy’s novels, but the good ones are, to a man, traitors and defectors. This is the central theme of most 80s action cinema and propagandist novels – the light of America versus the darkness of Communism, and no gray in between them. This makes for cracking entertainment as any Schwartzenegger fan or gun nut can attest. Good versus evil, with the power of weaponry and protection of God to see us through the fall of the Iron Curtain.
This is also the central failing of such novels and cinema – good versus evil in crystal form makes for poor characterization, and hence human motivation and realpolitik. As such, it becomes popcorn fodder that ignores reality. The mudjahadden freedom fighters of The Cardinal of the Kremlin (Clancy’s fourth novel) become the greatest threat to freedom less than 20 years later. The passage of time has shown these works to age very poorly – and in the midst of this decline, HFRO was made into a film.
Helmed by John McTiernan at the height of his career, it was awesome in its power to entertain, an attempt to smarten up the 80s action genre with an efficient and militarily accurate technique as a lucrative front for a Navy recruitment commercial. For the use of a L.A. class attack submarine, an anti-sub warfare ship, an aircraft carrier and requisite aircraft with a stunning air drop scene onto a surfaced submarine, the Navy charged Paramount $300,000. You see films with larger catering budgets than that. After the film’s release, recruitment boomed for the Navy for the next year. With the technical assistance of the armed forces, HFRO boasts technically accurate fighting displays that equal The Enemy Below for verisimilitude, and is a triumph of technical cinema.
What it is not, however, is anything more than the usual agenda driven crap seen in the dim output of Cannon studios. This film was released in 1990, as perestroika economic reforms that opened Russian markets failed to work and the Russian threat became an international joke. The USSR fragmented in 1991, leaving the Russian economy in tatters and 80s action films without a viable boogeyman.
Russian commander Marko Ramius is defecting to the West, as a statement against his Russian masters. The Red October is a ballistic missile submarine with a new silent water propulsion drive that sounds like whales fucking, which allows it to approach the US coast undetected. So why create a ballistic missile platform that can launch from the East River when they can reach their targets just fine from the Baltic Sea? This is a retooling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, except without the liberalism of the Kennedys to ruin a perfectly good opportunity to push towards war. Every nation engages in brinksmanship as a way to test the limits of power. The U2 spy planes were an American example. So here, a Russian submarine commander and his officer corps have decided to defect, and give the Americans the Red October as a prize. Before he sailed, he posted a letter to the Admiral of the Russian Atlantic fleet to inform them what they could do with their nuclear ambitions. This was meant as a protest against the Cold War. As Ramius explains obliquely:
“Forty years at sea… a war at sea. A war with no battles, no monuments… only casualties. I widowed [my wife] the day I married her…”
What remains unsaid here is that the Russians were waging this war against an equal aggressor – there is no such thing as a one-sided fight. But that is the political view of HFRO and its contemporaries – ideology trumps pragmatism; America is the good guy because they just are. The pragmatic view would be that there is no such entity as a ‘good guy’ or ‘bad guy’; just factions at war, everyone struggling for a piece of the pie. For the Russians, Communism was their weapon of choice, and the effort to convince the world that their way was a viable alternative to capitalism and democracy. This was the core of the Cold War, not the technological dickfights that Tom Clancy’s novels helped make popular entertainment. America could not afford to allow the world to see socialism or communism as an alternative to capitalism, and so overtly fought and covertly underminded such governments relentlessly. From the WWII armistice to the present day there were no countries lacking American fingerprints on attempts to subvert socialist elements. None of these issues enter this or any other 80s action film, which makes them all immediately misleading, and over time rather hollow.
The characters are fairly shallow, the only one achieving any sort of depth being Ramius. He is an elegant orchestral conductor, and his hidden tune is heard only by CIA analyst Jack Ryan. Ryan’s wife, like women of any kind, are nonexistent here, in keeping with the 80s action ethos. No, his true love is found in the rough hands of Ramius; the closing scene has them in close up with an intimacy equal to Bogart and Bergman as the giant cock that is the Red October slides into the narrow river where it belongs, to the satisfaction of all. Ramius’s bunkmate, executive officer Borodin, discusses his reasons for defection: “I will buy a pickup truck.” Deeper revelations than this are hard to come by. He also expresses his desire to “marry a round American woman” with all the zeal of a man discussing his upcoming vasectomy. Any time the film deviates from technically-oriented action, the characters seem at a bit of a loss, so it is fortunate that the film adheres steadfastly to the weapons fetish track. The great Stellan Skarsgard tears into his role as a Russian sub captain tasked with hunting down Ramius with a ferocity the rest of the film lacks. “I’ll shake the man loose.”, he says with the cold eyes of a jilted lover. Indeed you will.
Cinema can be big and dumb, and solely for entertainment; on that level, The Hunt for Red October succeeds magnificently. This film makes for excellent comfort viewing, hearkening back to an era when all that was American was right and just, Reagan was the father we could look up to, and only a Communist would dare question the inherent gift that God had given to America to rule the earth. Even dumb cinema has its agenda, and this film made little secret of it. The Cold War must go on, and justify those enormous ‘defense’ budgets, promote the ideology of the good guy, and ensure that homoerotic films about men loving men who drive enormous metal phalluses will always rule the box office. Though the Bush revolution has had its share of films attempting to pick up where this tradition had left off, they were largely miserable failures, insufficiently blinded by ideology. The days of the 80’s action hero are quite dead.
The political officer receives a bloodless but brutal death at the hands of Ramius as he slams the guy’s neck backwards on a table. This isn’t enough, so he pushes (hnnngh hgnnngh) until he pops his fucking neck out. He flops back with his neck in an odd position, and breathes his last.
Two guys get shot, one submarine gets blowed up real good. Very clinical compared to the work of Bronson or Dudikoff.
Choice lines of dialogue:
“We sail on to Havana where the sun is warm and so is the… comradeship.” We know what you’re talking about, sexyboots. And the hourglass hand-gesture the enlisted man gives in response to this announcement is woefully unconvincing.
“Cold this morning, captain.” “Hmm. Cold. And hard.”
“It’s rumored Tupolev has a special place in his heart for you.”
No commentary needed here.
“I’m a politician, which means I’m a cheat and a liar. It also means I keep my options open.”
Ryan is the apple of everyone’s eye, it seems.
“I KNOW RAMIUS. HE’S BEEN A MAVERICK HIS ENTIRE CAREER, I ACTUALLY MET HIM ONCE AT AN EMBASSY DINNER. HAVE YOU EVER MET RAMIUS, GENERAL?” Ryan takes umbrage when a general suggests that Ryan may not know the object of his obsession. Ramius is all his, boys, so back the fuck off.
There are lots of closeups and longing looks between the officers. Fuck off – if you were on a boat for several months, you’d be playing grabass too.