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The Hunt For Red October (1990)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (1990)

Starring: Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Sam Neill, James Earl Jones, Tim Curry

Written By: Larry Ferguson, Donald Stewart, Tom Clancy (novel) Directed By: John McTiernan

The Short Version

Tom Clancy’s first hit novel becomes the last great Cold War film.

The adaptation of the dense book into a sleek, fast-moving screenplay is outstanding.

So is the cast, for that matter.

And the director, and the cinematographer… you get the idea.

If you have any interest in Cold War flicks, The Hunt For Red October is a must-own.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

PORT WINE SPREAD.

Tasty, with a red streak.


Pairs Well With...

SMIRNOFF.

American vodka; or, if you prefer, what happens when vodka defects.

“Mr. Ambassador, you have nearly a hundred naval vessels operating in the North Atlantic right now. Your aircraft has dropped enough sonar buoys so that a man could walk from Greenland to Iceland to Scotland without getting his feet wet. Now, shall we dispense with the bull?”


In the early 1980s, an insurance agent with a passion for military intrigue and intelligence sold a novel to a publishing company that wasn’t in the habit of publishing fiction.  The insurance guy was Tom Clancy, and the novel was “The Hunt For Red October.”  It was the beginning of a literary and cultural institution, not to mention one of the great novels of the final decade of the Cold War.  Of course it was going to be optioned by Hollywood.

But something happened between 1984 (when the book was published) and 1990 (when the movie was released).  Specifically, the Communist Bloc had been brought to its knees.  The Berlin Wall was down.  Eastern European nations once considered Soviet “satellite states” were liberating themselves.  The Soviet Union itself was on the brink of collapse.  (It would fall the following year.)  In short, the Cold War that had been so threatening just a few years before had been suddenly all but won by the Western powers.  Could a Cold War flick pitting the big bad Soviet Union against the United States play as relevant or sensible anymore?

That’s what Sean Connery himself asked after reading the screenplay; indeed, he almost refused the lead role in The Hunt For Red October because of that.  Then the production team pointed out the first of many wonderful conjuring tricks pulled off by the script: its first page (which Connery reportedly had not seen), which featured a few short lines  that turned the movie into a giant flashback set during the mid 80s, just after the book was originally published.  Suddenly, just like a Vietnam flick would, the Cold War worked again.  And why not?  A taut thriller is a taut thriller is a taut thriller.

At least it is after the screenwriters take a dense, description-heavy book and boil it down to its essence.  That counts as the next conjuring trick pulled off by the script, with a result that is one of the single most deftly accomplished novel-to-film adaptations that I’ve ever seen.  You want precision slimming and retooling?  Look no further than The Hunt For Red October.  (And if you want to know who to thank for that precision work, have a look at the guy playing the Chief of the Boat on the USS Dallas.  That’s Larry Ferguson.  He co-wrote the script.)

And once all of that is out of the way… the rest of the team can work its magic.

The Hunt For Red October is the third film in the trifecta that represents the greatest period of director John McTiernan’s career.  (The first two were Predator and Die Hard.)  He takes the script that he challenged his writers to tighten up and presents it in classic espionage/intrigue thriller style, combining a quick pace with an atmosphere that makes dialogue feel like action.  That atmosphere is augmented by outstanding cinematography by Jan de Bont, who manages to convey the closeness of submarine interiors without making the audience turn claustrophobic, and who inventively turns smoke and lights into water.  The deal is sealed by composer Basil Poledouris, whose score evokes both suspense and excitement, augmented by some marvelous Russian language choir themes that set the film even more solidly than the visual cues do.  (The opening theme’s hook literally translates into “Goodbye, Motherland [Mother Russia].”)  What the screenplay starts, the folks behind camera finish.

All of this leaves the first rate cast an excellent stage upon which to play.

Sean Connery takes the lead as Captain of the Red October, Marko Ramius, and he does exactly the sort of remarkable job you’d expect.  It doesn’t matter that he’s not faking a major Russian accent; indeed, his performance is all the better for not bothering with the distraction.  Connery’s normal voice is damn fine enough of a Voice of Authority, thank you, and he brings more than enough presence to bear to convince any audience that he is indeed playing the wiliest, most respected officer in the Soviet navy.  (Want more Voices of Authority?  Try Scott Glenn’s quiet power as he plays the Captain of the American submarine, the USS Dallas, and then tack on James Earl Jones to bring so much gravity that The Hunt For Red October starts to seems as though it’s bucking to achieve Singularity status.)

And then there’s Alec Baldwin, who became on A-List star on the basis of his performance in this picture.  (Yes, amazingly enough, he wasn’t always everywhere.)  His hunger as an actor at this stage of his career is apparent, and it translates well into how he portrays the harried CIA Analyst Jack Ryan, who plunges headlong into the story’s intrigues while all the while wondering if he should have just written “a goddamn memo” instead.  For this one story only, thanks to Baldwin’s work, Ryan is the unlikely hero, and the result is a refreshing character with whom the audience has a real chance to identify.  After this, the character would turn Marty Stu, and Baldwin would gain a screen confidence that has never stopped expanding, but for this single moment in cinematic time… Aces.

Then consider that The Hunt For Red October can afford to throw talent like that of Sam Neill, Tim Curry, Stellan Skarsgard, and (scene stealing MVP of the movie) Richard Jordan down to the second and third tiers…  Oh, yeah.  This flick’s got one hell of a cast, all right.

And yet, even with all of the amazing work happening behind and in front of the camera that any filmmaker would be happy to claim any part of as a project centerpiece, when all is said and done, everything about The Hunt For Red October exists in service to the plot.  So many shiny things begging to become distractions, and yet, the arrow flies true.  On a project of this magnitude, that’s nothing short of extraordinary.  (I’m sure it also helped that the real world fact that the Cold War was about to be “won” by the West helped keep the American flag waving down to a minimum, thus allowing the story to exist on its own merits rather than as a wholly blatant propaganda piece.)

Bottom line, The Hunt For Red October is the last of the great Cold War films.  It’s not just worth your time to watch; it’s also worth your money to own.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, September, 2014


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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