“Ryan—be careful what you shoot at, hm? Most things in here don’t react too well to bullets.”
A beat. “Right.”
Jack Ryan turns away, his gun held gently in one hand. He straightens from his crouch, and as he does, the camera pulls away from the tight focus on his face, curving and tilting slightly to take full stock of Ryan’s surroundings. In front of him is a double line of missile tubes, each one a flat, threatening red, solid and powerful, stretching away toward the end of the missile bay. Ryan looks very small in their shadow.
The Hunt for Red October is a technical thriller about Cold War-era submarines, less concerned with explosions than with very intelligent men being highly competent at their high-stress, low-prestige jobs. No women speak (or appear) after the opening credits. The Navy’s jargon is translated where necessary for civilian comprehension—a line about “a boomer coming out of the barn” is immediately followed up with a redundant line about “a missile boat coming out of Polyarny,” and acronyms like “SAPS” are detangled in dialogue by sailors who would otherwise just say the acronym like the shorthand it is—but the subtle particulars of the Navy are left unsaid. The film assumes that the casual viewer might have a more-than-casual understanding of military operations, whether or not they’ve set foot on a ship. It is precise, clean, with key players and their motivations mapped out carefully as the action unfolds. The color palette is primarily drab grays, khakis, and taupes, punctuated with cold blues and threatening reds. The camerawork is calm, the angles low, with most frames static until they push gently in for emphasis or dolly slowly back to convey a sense of scale.
In terms of scale, the film carries stakes both personal and apocalyptic. Although no one ever mentions global thermonuclear war, the specter of the warhead lies heavy over each individual plot development. Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), a commanding officer in the Soviet Navy, takes command of the Red October, the latest in Soviet submarine technology. With the help of the boat’s silent-propulsion drive, he gives the rest of the Soviet Navy the slip, making for the North American coast. American intelligence indicates that Ramius has gone mad and wants to “park a couple hundred warheads off the coast,” an impression the Soviet government is all too happy to cultivate as they, too, hunt for their missing submarine. CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) suspects, based on a hunch borne from the profile he’d written about the captain, that Ramius intends to defect. Diplomatic and military relationships across the Atlantic fray as Ryan scrambles to find the Red October. Because he made the mistake of airing his idea at a national security briefing instead of circulating a memo, he’s tasked with proving his theory—and bringing in Ramius and the Red October—before the American and Soviet navies can trace it and sink it, or before Ramius can touch off World War III.
The film is as straightforward as a military history book and as complicated as geopolitics: a struggle between adversaries working from opposing—and nearly incompatible—ideological foundations to maintain a tenuous structure of peace. (In The Hunt for Red October, the struggle is by necessity somewhat simplified; the only countries to exist in any meaningful way are the United States and Soviet Russia, a binary relationship that draws out the complexities of each country’s relationship to the other without acknowledging the existence of any other nation, nor their place in the struggle for global dominance.) Both adversaries find themselves in a position where neither side can admit weakness lest they risk open war, and with it, the possibility of nuclear annihilation. In a quiet moment, Ramius murmurs that he has been “40 years…at sea. A war at sea. A war with no battles, no monuments, only casualties.” When conflict is reduced to its most simple parts—us versus them, good versus bad, tentative and unsustainable “peace” versus all-out war—in a situation in which any false step might touch off that very war, the result is a life-or-death stalemate, one where life looks and feels very much like death.
Ramius and Ryan are both keenly aware of the knives’ edges on which they operate. If Ryan’s theory is wrong, then at best his reputation is gone, staked away “on a hunch,” as he tells the national security advisor to the president. The advisor believes him enough to lend credence to his theory, then throws him—literally and figuratively—out to sea to prove his hunch correct. At worst, Ryan’s attempts to contact the Red October could be a fatal flinch in the Cold War’s long game of chicken, an opening too tempting for a trigger-happy madman with no checks on his power at the helm of a nuclear submarine. For Ramius’ part, he must walk a careful line to maintain the fear and respect of his crew (who know nothing about Ramius’ attempt to go rogue) and of his officers (who wish to defect with him, but disapprove of his methods to do so). A misstep could mean mutiny, or capture; trigger-happy “buckaroo” Americans worry Ramius just as much as the Soviet ships in pursuit. A saboteur threatens the well-being of every life on his boat. Death walks in the shadow of every decision he makes.
When Ryan stands in the missile tubes’ shadow, the shot summarizes the film in a single frame: the looming threat of war, death made concrete by a missile bay, with one man able to tip the balance. Another man, offscreen and unknown, works to sabotage the missiles, threatening to incinerate the submarine. The saboteur could be anyone, an echo of everyone else Ryan has had to fight or persuade to help him on his mission to find Ramius. Ryan’s posture is both defensive and preparing to take the offensive: he is both hiding and brandishing a gun. His face betrays his discomfort with the situation. He is an analyst, not a field agent. He never meant for the situation to get this far. More than ever, he wishes he’d just written the memo. He got himself into this mess. He’s the only one who can get himself—and everyone else—out from under the shadow and the threat of outright war.
In this single shot, The Hunt for Red October presents the stakes as those of the struggle between an individual and the vast and powerful forces that threaten to swallow him. These forces have dogged Ryan from the beginning. They are personal in some cases, from the dismissal of the leaders he briefs about Ramius to the doubts of the admirals and commanding officers he meets in his hunt for the elusive submarine. The opposing forces are also existential. It is no coincidence that the missile tubes looming around Ryan are deep red, uniform, and so numerous that they fade into obscurity in the distance. The image is elegant and indelible. Here are the missiles that threaten the East Coast of the United States, and here, too, is an abstracted image of communist Soviet Russia as the United States sees it. The missiles crowd all else out, leaving room only for conformity, and a threat of death to anyone who dares challenge their power.
In contrast, Ryan is small and individual, foregrounded and overshadowed. If not for the borrowed uniform and the gun, he would appear to be the generic “man” symbol, a lone if nondescript bastion against encroaching danger. The gun is small, too, but concrete, a scalpel in comparison to the missiles Ryan must stop. He straightens from his crouch in a defensive posture, portrayed—as he has been the entire film—as an underdog against the machinery of the enemy.
The Hunt for Red October presents American individuality as a potent weapon against the specter of communism. The film is polite enough when presenting its Soviet characters on screen, but being an American movie produced shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the boundaries drawn around its heroes and villains map neatly onto each character’s claimed nationality. Even Ramius himself is not Russian, but Lithuanian, harboring a stubbornly independent streak that his sailors perceive as the edge of madness. The sympathetic officers on board the Red October are each seeking political asylum from the United States. The remaining sailors are portrayed either as naively loyal to the motherland—they sing patriotic songs in unison, endangering the boat’s safety by betraying their location to listening American subs—or malevolent agents of the KGB.
Ryan faces one such agent in the missile bay, stringing wires together, rigging the boat for destruction. Ramius holds both missile keys: a safeguard intended to prevent any one man from arming the missiles, ironically subverted. The agent might not be capable of launching the missiles on the United States, so he’ll do the next best thing and destroy the Red October with Ramius and the defecting officers and the Americans on board. If mutually assured destruction won’t work, he can at least scuttle the ship along with its technology, out of reach of the United States Navy. To stop the agent, Ryan must pull the trigger on his own weapon.
The simplified conflict of Ryan vs. KGB agent is the simplified conflict of the Cold War writ small: American vs. Russian, capitalist vs. communist, individual vs. the other. And here the metaphor of the shot falls apart. Ryan might be alone in the moment, but he isn’t working on his own. He had to persuade everyone else from Langley to D.C. to the Outer Banks to help him on his mission, but Ryan is backed by the United States Navy, which is operating in surface vessels above him and in another submarine alongside him. He’s the one with the ideas, but he’s always had others to back him up: an admiral based at the CIA headquarters in Langley, a former submarine officer specializing in new sub technology, the national security advisor at the briefing. Ryan faces more skepticism at sea than on land, but even the most incredulous officers in the North Atlantic come around to his view, and once they do, he has their full support. Even then, he wasn’t the one to locate the Red October. A sonar specialist did that work for him. The shot of Ryan alone in the missile bay reinforces a myth of lone cowboy heroics, the kind of which Ramius was suspicious when he made his first moves to defect. But the reality is more complicated.