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The film was scored by Hans Zimmer, who won a Grammy Award for the main theme, which makes heavy use of synthesizers in place of traditional orchestral instruments.
In post-Soviet Russia, military units loyal to Radchenko, an ultranationalist, have taken control of a nuclear missile installation and are threatening nuclear war if either the American or the Russian government attempts to confront him.
A U.S. Navy nuclear submarine, the USS Alabama, is assigned a patrol mission, to be available to launch its missiles in a preemptive strike if Radchenko attempts to fuel his missiles. Captain Frank Ramsey (Hackman) is the commanding officer of the sub, and one of the few commanders left in the Navy with any combat experience. He chooses as his new executive officer (X.O.) Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter (Washington), who has an extensive education in military history and tactics, but no combat experience.
During their initial days at sea, tensions between Ramsey and Hunter become apparent due to a clash of personalities: Hunter's more analytical, cautious approach, as opposed to Ramsey's more impulsive and intuitive approach. The Alabama eventually receives an Emergency Action Message, ordering the launch of ten of its missiles against the Russian nuclear installation, based on satellite information that the Russians' missiles are being fueled. Before the Alabama can launch, a second message arrives but is cut off by the attack of a Russian submarine loyal to Radchenko. The radio is damaged in the attack and is unable to decode the second message. With the last confirmed order being to launch, Captain Ramsey decides to proceed. Hunter refuses to concur as is procedurally required, because he believes the partial second message may be a retraction. Hunter argues that the Alabama is not the only American submarine in the area, and if the order is not retracted, other submarines will launch their missiles. Ramsey argues that the other American submarines may have been destroyed.
When Hunter refuses to consent, Ramsey tries to relieve him of duty and replace him with a different officer. Instead, Hunter orders the arrest of Ramsey for attempting to circumvent protocol. The crew's loyalty is divided between Hunter and Ramsey. A mutiny ensues and command of the Alabama changes hands, with Ramsey retaking the bridge and Hunter then getting support from the weapons officer in the missile control room, further delaying the launch. Other crew members try to repair the radio while the battle for command continues. Eventually, Ramsey gains control of the entire ship, but with the radio team reporting they are near success, agrees to a compromise; they will wait until the deadline to see if the radio can be repaired.
After several tense minutes, communications are restored and they finally see the full message from the second transmission. It is a retraction ordering that the missile launch be aborted, because Radchenko's rebellion has been quelled. After returning to base, Ramsey and Hunter are put before a naval tribunal to answer for their actions. The tribunal concludes that both men were simultaneously right and wrong, so Hunter's mutiny was lawfully justified. Unofficially, the tribunal chastises both men for failing to resolve the issues between them. Thanks to Ramsey's personal recommendation, the tribunal agrees to grant Hunter his own command while Ramsey opts for early retirement. Both men then reconcile their differences and part ways.
- Gene Hackman - Captain Frank Ramsey
- Denzel Washington - Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter
- George Dzundza - Chief of the Boat Cobb
- James Gandolfini - Lieutenant Bobby Dougherty
- Matt Craven - Lieutenant Roy Zimmer
- Viggo Mortensen - Lieutenant Peter Ince "Weps"
- Rocky Carroll - Lieutenant Darik Westergard
- Danny Nucci - Petty Officer Danny Rivetti
- Steve Zahn - William Barnes
- Ricky Schroder - Lt. Paul Hellerman
- Lillo Brancato - Petty Officer Third Class Russell Vossler
- Ryan Phillippe - Seaman Grattam (feature film debut)
- Jason Robards - Rear Admiral Anderson, Board of Inquiry President (uncredited)
The score for Crimson Tide was composed by Hans Zimmer, and employs a blend of orchestra, choir, and synthesizer sounds. It includes additional music by Nick Glennie-Smith and the music was conducted by Harry Gregson-Williams. Within the score is the well known Naval Services Hymn, "Eternal Father, Strong to Save". The score won a Grammy Award in 1996, and has been described by Zimmer as one of his personal favorites.
The film has uncredited additional writing by Quentin Tarantino, much of it being the pop-culture reference-laden dialogue.
The U.S. Navy objected to many of the elements in the script — particularly the aspect of mutiny on board a U.S. naval vessel — and as such, the film was produced without the assistance of the U.S. Navy. The French Navy (Marine Nationale) assisted the team for production with the French aircraft carrier Foch and one SNLE.
Crimson Tide earned $18.6 million in the United States on its opening weekend, which ranked #1 for all films released that week. Overall, it earned $91 million in the U.S. and an additional $66 million internationally, for a total of $157.3 million.
The film received mostly positive reviews from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 87% of 46 critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 7.5 out of 10. In addition, 91% of Rotten Tomatoes' "Top Critics" gave the film a positive rating, with an average score of 8 out of 10. While critics agreed that it was a "boy's movie" all the way, many thought that it excited the intellect as well as the adrenaline glands. A number of critics cited Hackman and Washington's performances, and enjoyed the film's snappy, pop culture inflected dialogue.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, "This is the rare kind of war movie that not only thrills people while they're watching it, but invites them to leave the theater actually discussing the issues," and Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "Crimson Tide has everything you could want from an action thriller and a few other things you usually can't hope to expect."
Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly wrote that, "what makes Crimson Tide a riveting pop drama is the way the conflict comes to the fore in the battle between two men. ... The end of the world may be around the corner, but what holds us is the sight of two superlatively fierce actors working at the top of their game."
In contrast, Janet Maslin of The New York Times criticized the film's "blowhardiness" and superficial treatment of apocalyptic fears. She noted that there is "... something awfully satisfying about the throbbing missiles and cathartic explosions that constitute this film's main excitement," but felt that "... nothing else here delivers a comparable thrill."
Crimson Tide was nominated for three Academy Awards, for Editing, Sound (Kevin O'Connell, Rick Kline, Gregory H. Watkins, and William B. Kaplan), and Sound Editing.
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