Movie Review: ‘The Hunt for Red October’ (1990)

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Directed by: John McTiernan

Written by: Larry Ferguson and Donald E. Stuart, John Milius (uncredited), David Shaber (uncredited)

Based on: The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy

Starring: Alec Baldwin, Sean Connery, Scott Glenn, Sam Neill, James Earl Jones, Joss Ackland, Richard Jordan, Peter Firth, Tim Curry, Courtney B. Vance, Fred Dalton Thompson, Larry Ferguson, Daniel Davis, Jeffrey Jones, Gates McFadden

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

On March 2, 1990, Paramount Pictures released The Hunt for Red October, a submarine-espionage thriller film by John McTiernan (Predator, Die Hard). Based on the best-selling novel by Tom Clancy and featuring a stellar cast that includes Alec Baldwin as CIA analyst Jack Ryan, Sean Connery as Captain First Rank Marko Ramius of the Soviet Navy, and Scott Glenn as Commander Bart Mancuso, USN, The Hunt for Red October is the first theatrical film in the Jack Ryan series.

Written by Larry Ferguson – who plays Chief of the Boat Thompson – and Donald E. Stewart (with additional material by an uncredited John Milius and David Shaber), The Hunt for Red October is set in November 1984, shortly before the death of the ailing Soviet Premier Konstantin Chernenko and the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev to power in the Kremlin. Per the pre-main title prologue, we are told that at that time, a Soviet Typhoon-class missile submarine suffered a catastrophic reactor failure and sank off the Grand Banks. Most of the crew was rescued. However, “according to statements by both the American and Soviet governments, none of what you are about to see…ever happened.

The prologue then takes us to a fjord in the Kola Peninsula near the Soviet Navy’s base at Polyarnny, near the Soviet Union’s large port city of Murmansk in the Arctic Circle. There, on the conning tower of the nuclear-powered ballistic submarine, Red October, Captain First Rank Marko Alexandrovich Ramius  (Connery) and his first officer, Captain Vasili Borodin (Sam Neill) take a last look at their homeland before taking their “boomer” out to sea on her maiden voyage and a scheduled fleet exercise with an Alfa-class submarine, the Konovalov.

 The two men – in one of the few scenes in which Soviet characters speak Russian – exchange a few words. Ramius observes that the land they are leaving is “Cold…and hard.” After a meaningful pause, Borodin cryptically says, “It’s time, Captain.” Ramius replies, “Time indeed,” then the camera pulls back in a dramatic reveal of the Red October – which in reality was a near-full scale mockup of a Typhoon-class boomer built to show the sub above the waterline – as it heads out of Polyarnny Inlet out to sea as the “Hymn to Red October” by composer Basil Poledouris plays triumphantly and the film’s main titles begin.

As in McTiernan’s 1988 blockbuster film Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October introduces its American protagonist, CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Baldwin) in a montage that defines his character. In this sequence, we are shown details that we need to know: he reads Proceedings, the Naval Institute Press magazine about navies and naval power, as well as Jane’s Fighting Ships; he is an expert on the Red Navy; he is studying the Typhoon-class sub (we see a computer schematic on his laptop before Ryan closes its lid and packs it away); and he is on assignment in London and lives there with wife Carolyn (Gates McFadden in a brief cameo) and daughter Sally (Louise Borras).

And, as a brief scene set aboard a Washington, DC-bound British Airways jet shows, Ryan doesn’t like flying:

Flight Attendant: You know, if you do try and get some sleep, the flight will go a lot faster.

Jack Ryan: I can never sleep on a plane. Turbulence.

Flight Attendant: Pardon?

Jack Ryan: Turbulence. Solar radiation heats the Earth’s crust, warm air rises, cold air descends – turbulence. I, I don’t like that.

Flight Attendant: Oh. Well, try to get some sleep anyway.

Ryan’s immediate superior at the Central Intelligence Agency’s Langley headquarters, Deputy Director (Intelligence) Adm. James Greer (James Earl Jones) knows all about Ryan’s phobia of flying; he refers to it obliquely when Ryan arrives in Greer’s seventh-floor office when he asks, “What’s so important to get you on a plane in the middle of the night?

Ryan takes a sheaf of photographs out of his CIA-issued briefcase and shows them to the Admiral, who examines them with a magnifying glass. They are covertly-taken black-and-white snapshots of Red October, presumably taken by a CIA asset in the Soviet shipyard where Red October was built. Greer notes that the sub is a “big son of a bitch,” and Ryan agrees, adding that “she’s 12 meters longer than the standard Typhoon, and two meters wider.”

When Greer notices a modification to the new sub – two sets of  paired “doors” at the bow and stern – he asks Ryan what they are. Ryan, who Clancy envisioned as a man who isn’t afraid to say what’s on his mind and says the truth as he sees it, says, “Those doors, sir, are the problem. I don’t know what they are. And neither do the British. Perhaps our friends in Murmansk have come up with something new.”

Ryan isn’t sure what that “something new” may be, but he knows someone who is – his friend Oliver Wendell “Skip” Tyler (Jeffrey Jones), a former submariner whose career in the Navy ended when a drunk driver clipped his car and caused Tyler to lose a leg. Now he teaches engineering at the Naval Academy and does consulting for the Navy’s sub development labs and has high security clearances: “Top Secret or better,” Ryan says.

Greer gives Ryan permission to show the photos to Tyler, who is currently at a nearby shipyard working on a Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle  (DSRV) or “rescue sub.” In his office. Tyler examines the photos and quickly identifies Red October’s new innovation:

Skip Tyler: [Looking at photos of Red October which show the doors in the front and back of the sub] I’ll be… This might be a caterpillar.

Jack Ryan: A what?

Skip Tyler: A caterpillar drive. Magneto hydrodynamic propulsion. You follow?

Jack Ryan: No.

Skip Tyler: It’s like… a jet engine for the water. Goes in the front, gets squirted out the back. Only it has no moving parts so it’s very, very quiet.

Jack Ryan: Like how quiet?

Skip Tyler: Doubt our sonar would even pick it up. If it did, it would sound like… whales humping or some kind of seismic anomaly. Anything but a submarine. We messed with this a few years ago. Couldn’t make it work. This… this isn’t a mockup.

Jack Ryan: She was put to sea this morning.

Skip Tyler: When I was twelve, I helped my daddy build a bomb shelter in our basement because some fool parked a dozen warheads 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Well, this thing could park a couple of hundred warheads off Washington and New York and no one would know anything about it till it was all over.

McTiernan intercuts the initial stages of Ryan’s research into Red October with scenes set aboard the titular submarine. After Red October sets out to see and is safely cruising underwater, Ramius sets the plot of the story in motion by murdering the submarine’s Zampolit (Political Officer) Ivan Putin (Peter Firth) and destroying the submarine’s official orders and replacing with false ones that Ramius will read to his crew, most of which are oblivious to Ramius’ true intent: to take the Red October on a course far away from the Soviet Union – and defect to the West.

As in Clancy’s novel, McTiernan’s film then becomes a race between the U.S. and Soviet governments to be the first to find the new stealthy missile sub that is racing west across the cold waters of the North Atlantic. The Soviets know what Ramius is doing – before leaving port, the half-Russian, half-Lithuanian submarine captain sends a letter to his late wife’s uncle, Admiral Yuri Padorin (Peter Zinner) in which Ramius states his intention to defect, along with a handful of like-minded officers who are disillusioned with Communism and the Soviet state.

However, most of the American national security officials privy to the new crisis do not, and it is up to Jack Ryan to find out what Ramius is doing, and how to get to Red October before the bulk of the Soviet fleet finds her…and sinks her.

Theatrical release poster. (C) 1990 Paramount Pictures

My Take

I first read Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October in the spring of 1986 when I was a 23-year-old college sophomore at Miami-Dade Community College’s South Campus (now the Kendall Campus of Miami-Dade College).[1]  It took me a while to get into Clancy’s writing style, but eventually I was caught up in what eventually became the first of the ongoing Jack Ryan series of novels penned by the late author and other writers – including Grant Blackwood and Mark Greaney, both of whom co-wrote the last three books Clancy completed before his death in November of 2013 – and became a fan of his books.

When I finished reading The Hunt for Red October for the first time – it’s one of the few books that I re-read at least once every few years – I asked myself two questions:

  • Will there be a movie version?
  • If there is a movie version, how can it possibly be done right?

Clearly, I wasn’t the only person who pondered this. As is often the case when a book comes out of – seemingly – nowhere and becomes a bestseller (helped in no way by a public endorsement from President Ronald Reagan, who answered a reporter’s question by calling Hunt “the perfect yarn”), movie studio execs read it to see if it could be adapted – and concluded that although Clancy’s story was exciting and had dramatic potential, it was too large and complex to film within a reasonable budget.

Producer Mace Neufeld disagreed. A film business veteran since the 1950s – he started out as a talent agent for Don Knotts and other notables before moving on to producing movies and TV shows in the 1970s – Neufeld had read galley proofs of the novel and, with his business partner Robert Rehme, bought the film rights from Clancy, as well as the rights to future books by the “master of the techno-thriller.”

Though the script had to dispense with many of the novel’s details and excised huge sections of the story – including the crucial role played by the Royal Navy and any depictions on screen of the Soviet surface fleet (the Red Banner Northern Fleet’s massive deployment is mentioned in dialogue and on US Navy ships’ computer display graphics, but we never see it at sea) – it is faithful to the spirit of Tom Clancy’s book, if not precisely the letter.

The screenplay by Larry Ferguson and Donald Stewart (with uncredited contributions by John Milius and David Shaber) is taut and fast-paced, and in a few scenes, it incorporates either lines from the source novel or Clancy’s cadences for Jack Ryan’s speaking style.

The movie features exciting action and nail-biting tension throughout, even though the underwater scenes look a bit murky on TV screens. The pacing is as good as can be expected from the director of Predator and two Die Hard films, and Basil Pouledoris’ Russian-flavored score is fittingly exciting.

But pacing, effects, and musical scores are worthless if the actors don’t perform well. Happily, The Hunt for Red October is enhanced by great performances by Baldwin and Connery, whose chemistry in their scenes together evokes the Ryan-Ramius relationship in Clancy’s book, making this the best of the five films set in the “Ryanverse.”

It’s also worth noting that three of the actors – Sean Connery, Scott Glenn, and James Earl Jones had served in the armed forces before becoming actors – and that many of the extras in The Hunt for Red October were active duty Navy sailors and officers. Glenn, who plays USS Dallas skipper Bart Mancuso, was allowed to sail aboard a Los Angeles-class sub – USS Salt Lake City – shadowing Capt. Thomas Fargo as he went about his daily routine as commanding officer. Fargo ordered his crew to treat Glenn as though he was the captain, and only asked the actor (a former Marine) to excuse himself when Fargo received classified comms from the Fleet.

This adds a sense of realism to the movie that prior military films of the era lack. It also ties Hunt to its source novel, which was so true to life that Clancy was once asked if he had access to top secret data. (The former insurance agency owner explained that he did his research from open source information available in reference books such as Jane’s Fighting Ships and conversations with nuclear plant engineers, many of whom had served in U.S. Navy nuclear-powered subs and carriers before entering civilian life.

Had screenwriters Ferguson and Stewart even attempted to be as slavishly faithful to Clancy’s novel, it is unlikely that producer Neufeld would have been able to get Paramount Pictures to undertake such a massive production.

To depict the hunt for a defecting Typhoon-class submarine as in the book with late 1980s tech would have required expensive miniature effects sequences, for what makes Clancy’s novel so exciting is the ensuing face-off between most of the Soviet Navy and a large fraction of the U.S. Navy. Could it have been done? Perhaps…but it would have cost almost as much as Titanic a few years later: well over $200 million.

Left out of the screenplay were passing references to Patriot Games, which in the chronology of the books is a prequel to The Hunt for Red October, as well as a secondary storyline (what TV writers would call a B story) involving an American spy working for the Soviets. Clancy readers know that this storyline will be developed in two other novels. However, in order to make this movie move smoothly, many scenes and characters were excised.

In spite of these compromises –  or perhaps because of them – director John McTiernan  tells a gripping action adventure piece that is also cerebral. Connery’s Ramius is strikingly similar to the one in the novel.

Alec Baldwin’s Jack Ryan also comes close to his literary alter-ego, and one wonders how the franchise would have fared had he not been replaced by Harrison Ford for two films and Ben Affleck in one, and Chris Pine in yet another movie. Even the sea chase (now pared down to one Alfa-class submarine and a Bear Foxtrot anti-sub warfare patrol plane for the Soviets, and one Los Angeles-class nuclear attack sub and one Perry-class frigate for the U.S. Navy’s onscreen force) makes this movie worth watching.

The Hunt for Red October is not the perfect adaptation of a Clancy novel. In several interviews before his death, the author often griped that Hollywood never got the details right enough to his satisfaction. Hunt was a disappointment to Clancy, not because it had to pare down the plot to tell the story in a two-hours-long running time, but because it had factual errors real submariners would spot easily.

Still, it is a good action-adventure that portrays the Navy and the CIA in a positive light – a rarity for a Hollywood production of the late Eighties – and has a great script, cast, and a talented director at the helm. It’s one of my favorite movies, and if you haven’t seen it yet, I strongly recommend it.

[1] See my review of Red Storm Rising.

Published by Alex Diaz-Granados

Alex Diaz-Granados (1963- ) began writing movie reviews as a staff writer and Entertainment Editor for his high school newspaper in the early 1980s and was the Diversions editor for Miami-Dade Community College, South Campus' student newspaper for one semester. Using his experiences in those publications, Alex has been raving and ranting about the movies online since 2003 at various web sites, including Amazon, Ciao and Epinions. In addition to writing reviews, Alex has written or co-written three films ("A Simple Ad," "Clown 345," and "Ronnie and the Pursuit of the Elusive Bliss") for actor-director Juan Carlos Hernandez. You can find his reviews and essays on his blogs, A Certain Point of View and A Certain Point of View, Too.

4 thoughts on “Movie Review: ‘The Hunt for Red October’ (1990)

  1. I did not read the book but I very much enjoyed the movie. You could say it’s because I am a loyal Sean Connery fan. But also, I like it when he gets paired off with a younger actor and you can feel the onscreen chemistry between them. Connery and Baldwin worked well together. And of course, Mr. Connery is a striking figure in uniform. Any uniform! LOL.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would have liked “The Hunt for Red October” even if I hadn’t read the novel; it’s the kind of film I gravitated toward when I was younger. I was initially let down that some of the best scenes in the book couldn’t be included, but now that I’m in the fringes of the film industry (and a long-time film reviewer) I understand that what works well in one medium is often hard to replicate in another. Book authors do not have to worry about how much a certain scene will cost to produce or if the visual effects technology is up to par with their imaginations. Filmmakers, on the other hand, do have to worry about such things. So…it took me a while to see McTiernan’s film as its own thing.


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