Crimson Tide’s Fatal Error

Future creative partner (I still insist) Nate Bell observes that Jindabyne embellishes Raymond Carver’s short story with a racial factor that obscures the short story’s objective. I haven’t seen Jindabyne but the point reminds me of a similarly self-defeating flourish in a completely unrelated movie (except that it has water in it).

Last week on TV I finally saw Crimson Tide for the first time. I thought it was fine for what it was until the very last moments when it suddenly, distractingly, exasperatingly introduced a hitherto absent racial element. There is no more lazy way of telegraphing who the bad guy is (as if it weren’t already clear enough) than by putting in his mouth a racist insult, and it completely betrayed any tension in the admittedly intriguing dilemma of protocol and the film’s reflection on old vs. new warriors.

It’s no surprise that the dialogue is out of character with the rest of the movie because Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Andy Garcia had all been considered for Denzel Washington’s role, so it must have been added to the script after the role was casted. I’m not saying there was no racial tension in the movie till then as the submarine itself is named the USS Alabama, and the ideological conflict was visually underscored by making the standoff between a black and white officer, but the scene in question stupidly made explicit the subtext which was already palpable enough and worked best on a subconscious level.

I think I misspoke. It is not that the movie telegraphed the bad guy early on, as movies often do by having a character hit a woman so we don’t feel too bad later on when he gets killed. Even worse, it betrayed its own premise by insisting at the last minute that the audience sympathize with only one side of the procedural dilemma. Yet immediately after the moral identification is made it is undermined in the next scene in which the naval inquiry affirms the procedural validity of both officers’ actions.

The racially charged exchanged was a last minute attempt to “raise” the stakes from an abstract to a personal level, as if the prospect of World War III were not intense enough. But like Hackman’s overzealousness, the miscalculation is enough to spoil the whole movie. Tragically for the film’s sake there was no Denzel figure to provide the crucial counterbalancing check.

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