How quickly did we leave the Cold War behind? The dust had barely settled on the fall of the Berlin Wall when this 1990 Tom Clancy adaptation was treating the subject like a period film. Of course, the world had changed so drastically since the novel’s 1984 publication that it was impossible to view the material as current events.
The good news is that this movie, directed by Die Hard’s John McTiernan, remains the cream of the Clancy-inspired film library. It’s a lean, efficient action piece, with some a-list talent and a crisp, well-written script. Shrewd casting and top-flight production values gives the film a level of authenticity that its follow-up, Patriot Games, sorely lacked.
Sometime in 1984, a young CIA analyst, Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin), arrives in Washington with news of a new Soviet Typhoon-class missile submarine, the Red October, with a new propulsion system that allows it to evade U.S. sonar systems, something that’s demonstrated when the new boat seems to vanish into thin air (um, thin water?) right in front of the U.S.S. Dallas, an American attack sub under the command of Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn).
When the Soviet Navy starts hunting the sub with orders to destroy her, the U.S. command structure assumes that her commander, a revered Soviet submariner named Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), has gone rogue and intends to launch the sub’s missiles. Ryan, however, guesses that Ramius might be attempting to defect. No one takes him seriously but the President’s chief-of-staff (Richard Jordan) gives him seventy-two hours to prove his theory correct.
Of course, by this point we know that Ryan is correct and the real suspense comes from his race to prove that Ramius is defecting before the U.S. Navy blasts the Red October out of the water. He first has to persuade the skeptical commander of the carrier battle group (possible presidential candidate Fred Thompson) and the even-more-skeptical Mancuso that his theory has any merit.
The strength of this film draws from the apparent authenticity of its scenes on board the various naval vessels, especially the Dallas. Mancuso and his sonar man, Seaman Jones (Courtney B. Vance) have a matter-of-fact quality that still manages to let hints of their personalities shine through. This is in no small part due to research that the cast was allowed to do aboard real U.S. submarines. Scott Glenn was even allowed to temporarily assume command of the U.S.S. Salt Lake City as part of his preparation.
Unfortunately, screenwriter Larry Ferguson inserted a pair of completely gratuitous scenes for actor Larry Ferguson that briefly bring the story to a lurching stop, but this inflicts only a minor wound on the film’s momentum.
Of course, this was before Alec Baldwin became an ego-driven spokesman for all things liberal, so it was easier to take him seriously as an action hero back then. If you can put his more recent antics out of your mind, you’ll find that Baldwin still makes the best Jack Ryan of the movie series. It doesn’t hurt that he is acting across from the best of all James Bonds, who manages to not sound ridiculous speaking Russian with a Scottish burr.
Of all the subsequent Jack Ryan films, only Clear and Present Danger holds a candle to Red October, but in a lot of ways it is more of Harrison Ford movie than a faithful adaptation of a Tom Clancy novel. This first effort manages to take a novel that read more like a submarine operations manual and distill its story to its essentials while keeping enough detail to give the Clancy junkies their fix. In a lot of ways, this is the movie that Crimson Tide only wished it could be.