In 1984 the Soviet Union launches its experimental first-strike nuclear submarine, the Red October. Its captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), fearing its purpose and tiring of his government, conspires with his officers to steal the Red October and defect to the USA. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) races to enable Ramius’ defection before the hunt for his submarine drags two super-powers in a Third World War.
When published in 1984, Tom Clancy’s debut novel The Hunt for Red October was a popular sensation. A military thriller rich in technical detail, it received an unexpected and critical publicity boost when President Ronald Reagan spontaneously praised it during a televised press conference. Six years later it was successfully adapted into a feature film directed by John McTiernan and starring Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery. It was a box office success, one leading to two sequels and a pair of franchise reboots. A streaming television adaptation of protagonist Jack Ryan is set to launch later this year on Amazon Prime.
The Hunt for Red October is a well-regarded and popular thriller, but in all honesty that praise feels under-rated. It is one of the best films of its year – easily better than at least three of 1990’s five Best Picture Oscar nominees – and only seems to feel stronger with successive viewings. Everything works. the performances, the screenplay, the music, and the direction. It is not uncommon for a film that was misunderstood or disliked upon release to be re-evaluated in later years as an insufficiently regarded classic. In the case The Hunt for Red October, audiences in 1990 liked the film just fine; it’s simply that they did not like it enough.
The screenplay, which is credited to Larry Ferguson and Donald E. Stewart, takes a dense 387-page novel and strips it down to a tightly plotted 135 minutes. The technical detail which bogged down Clancy’s book somewhat is transformed into rich background detail. In narrative terms it does a superb job of running two protagonists in parallel. Ryan and Ramius only meet during the film’s climax, and in the preceding 90 minutes the film juggles each character’s own struggle in an effective back-and-forth fashion. The film never feels boring, because it never stops moving.
John McTiernan maintains a strong sense of both pace and the various physical surroundings. The various submarine sets feel claustrophobic and atmospheric, and thanks to a clever use of colour it is immediately obvious on which submarine any given scene is set. He keeps things clear and elegantly direct throughout; despite a complex plot, nothing every feels confusing or overly busy. It may be a big call to make, given his other works include both Predator and Die Hard, but I would argue Red October is McTiernan’s finest film.
Certainly it boasts the finest musical score of his films. Basil Pouledoris is a composer of extremes, providing booming and powerful complements to his films. Here he plays extensively on a Russian classical aesthetic and Soviet national themes. It suits the action perfectly, and despite its strength and volume never seems to over-power what is seen on screen.
A legitimate all-star cast brings the story to life. Supporting roles are filled by the likes of James Earl Jones, Sam Neill, Tim Curry, Stellan Skarsgård, Courtney B. Vance, and Scott Glenn. As Jack Ryan, Alec Baldwin nicely underplays his character’s physicality in favour of his smarts. He successfully delivers the audience an engaging and believable man placed under extreme circumstances. Of the four actors to play Ryan onscreen to date (he was followed by Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Chris Pine), Baldwin is easily the best and most interesting to watch.
Then there is Sean Connery in perhaps his boldest-ever role. He is so oddly cast: a man with such a definitive and rich Scottish voice playing a Russian submarine captain. The thing is, he is so good that there is never a reason to care. Despite the pace of the film, Connery finds a remarkable number of moments to add depth and nuance. He exudes so much charisma in the role that every scene in which Ramius features becomes riveting to watch. Connery appeared in so many different roles over the course of his career. I honestly think Marko Ramius is my absolute favourite.
Many people like this film. Some love it. Some would describe it as great. I do not think we should be afraid to use the word ‘masterpiece’. A better version of this story honestly seems unimaginable.