The Daily Stream: In The Hunt For Red October, Communication (Not Firepower) Saves The Day

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "The Hunt for Red October" (1990)

Where You Can Stream It: Netflix

The Pitch: It's the mid-1980s, and the Cold War is nearing its bitter, drawn-out end. Soviet submarine captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery, barely even trying to disguise his Scottish accent in the few lines he delivers in Russian, but we'll let it slide) is made the Commanding Officer of the Red October, the Soviet Navy's most advanced ballistic missile submarine and a vessel capable of avoiding detection by passive sonar. When Ramius abruptly goes rogue, lying to his crew and telling them they are to carry out missile drills off the east coast of North America, the CIA is quick to assume the worst and takes steps to try and stop Ramius before he launches a nuclear strike.

However, CIA intelligence analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) comes to suspect Ramius intends not to attack the U.S. but to defect to it. Can he prove his hypothesis in time before the situation deteriorates into a full-blown catastrophe? Just as importantly, will the Red October's executive officer and Captain second rank, Vasily Borodin (Sam Neill, three years out from his trip to Isla Nublar), get to fulfill his dream of raising rabbits and driving a pickup truck in Montana?

Why it's essential viewing

When it opened in theaters in 1990, "The Hunt for Red October" capped off a stellar run of action films by director John McTiernan, starting with "Predator" in 1987 and continuing with "Die Hard" in 1988. All now regarded as classics of the genre in their own right, these three movies couldn't be more different from one another. Of the trio, "The Hunt for Red October" might even be the most impressive, if only for the sheer amount of tension it wrings from close-ups of actors pretending to interpret data from radar screens, along with tight-nit shots of sweaty-faced men staring intensely at one another. That and the underwater visual effects shots by ILM, which have a strong practical component that's allowed them to age quite well over the last 32 years.

Of course, even the most state-of-the-art submarine would be lost without a skilled crew, and a film like "The Hunt for Red October" is no exception. Besides Connery (who, jabs at his "Soviet" accent aside, brings his customary gruff gravitas to the role of Ramius), Baldwin is well-cast as easily the most down-to-earth and book-smart iteration of Jack Ryan who's yet to grace the screen. Then there's the deep bench of talent in the supporting ensemble — which, besides Neill, includes James Earl Jones, Tim Curry, Courtney B. Vance, Scott Glenn, and Stellan Skarsgård in key roles. While it's hard to go wrong with a team like that, credit should still be given to McTiernan for assigning each of these actors a part that plays to their individual strengths.

'It's wise to study the ways of one's adversary'

Despite being based on a novel by Tom Clancy (who made a career out of writing pulpy conservative nonsense), "The Hunt for the Red October" has a surprisingly thoughtful message at its core. In the script credited to Larry Ferguson and Donald E. Stewart, with uncredited rewrites by John Milius, it's communication and having empathy for one's enemy that save the day, not firepower. The film is similarly precise in the way it uses a Soviet character saying "Armageddon" (which is the same in both Russian and English) early on to justify its switch from the crew of the Red October speaking Russian to English, taking a leaf from the book of Stanley Kramer's excellent 1961 courtroom drama "Judgment at Nuremberg." A nearly identical trick is later employed when Ryan and Ramius meet for the first time.

Besides giving the likes of Connery a free excuse to avoid having to put on a distractingly bad accent for most of the movie, these scenes serve to once again hit on the themes of communication and the value in studying one's adversary so as to come to a better understanding of them (ideally in the hopes of avoiding further conflict, to say nothing of the horrors of full-scale nuclear war). It's these elements, coupled with McTiernan's filmmaking prowess and the talented cast, that have allowed "The Hunt for Red October" to stand the test of time, long after other Cold War thrillers born from the '80s have passed their sell-by date.