When this movie came out in spring 1990, I was on the tail end of a fascination with the spy genre that had lasted two or three years. I’d devoured a whole bunch of Robert Ludlum and Nelson DeMille novels; I’d found Tom Clancy somewhat less readable but OK, and I bounced right off John Le Carre. Shortly thereafter I returned to reading fantasy and science fiction, having had my fill of spy stuff. Nowadays I haven’t read a spy novel in quite a few years, and I generally rely on movies and teevee for my espionage desires. (Plus, a lot of the F&SF I read employs tropes of spy stories, so it’s not like I’m completely missing out.)
I went with a bunch of friends to see Hunt for Red October the day after the winter semester ended (our school had an odd calendar), and before we went, I remember reading an article in TIME or Newsweek about the troubles that the entire spy genre was facing, what with the Cold War having ended just eight or nine months previously. I found the idea that the movie might suffer because of the lack of timeliness of its subject matter kind of goofy; after all, lots of historical dramas work just fine as stories with tension and suspense, despite the fact that their historical eras are long over. But still, there was some serious thought given to the fact that the spy genre was now going to have to look for new threats. I remember a Wayne’s World sketch on Saturday Night Live in which Wayne and Garth lamented the end of Communism with a top-ten style list, one of which was, “Spy stuff sucks.” Garth whined, “Yeah! Who’s James Bond gonna spy on now, the Guatemalans?!”
I also remember some years back when I got into a heated discussion on a Usenet newsgroup because someone wanted to say that some movie had done something in a very clicheed manner, “just like the James Bond movies of the 1960s used to treat Russians”. That ran up all manner of red flags, because only one of the six Bond movies released in the 1960s uses Russians, and in that one, they are hardly depicted stereptyically. In fact, Garth and my Usenet interlocutor might be surprised to learn that there was surprisingly little Cold War subtext to the Bond films until the 1980s!
What does all this have to do with Hunt for Red October? Well, if anything, the years that have passed since the Cold War’s conclusion have only helped the film. By pushing those historical circumstances back into history, the film now plays as it always should have: it’s a tense, engrossing thriller that pits one man against entire bureaucracies in the face of a dangerous diplomatic and military situation. The film’s story is extremely well constructed, with every element serving some purpose. But the movie’s dialog crackles! Here are just a couple of instances.
This brief exchange happens when the Russian Ambassador to the United States is meeting with the National Security Advisor, and is still maintaining the fiction that nothing terribly serious is to be read into the fact that the Northern Atlantic is now crawling with Russian ships:
Jeffrey Pelt: Mr. Ambassador, you have nearly a hundred naval vessels operating in the North Atlantic right now. Your aircraft have dropped enough sonar buoys so that a man could walk from Greenland to Iceland to Scotland without getting his feet wet! Now, shall we dispense with the bull?
Ambassador Lysenko: You make your point as delicately as ever, Mr. Pelt.
This brief exchange comes later on, when Jack Ryan is on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, and the Russian Navy is plowing across the ocean, the sonar systems blasting away into the water:
Captain Davenport: They’re pinging away with their active sonar like they’re looking for something, but nobody’s listening.
Jack Ryan: What do you mean?
Captain Davenport: Well, they’re moving at almost forty knots. At that speed, they could run right over my daughter’s stereo and not hear it.
And here’s a Navy pilot trying to give Jack Ryan some encouragement as they fly through violent turbulence to get to the Enterprise:
Navigator C-2A: What’s the matter Commander? You don’t like flying, huh? Aw, this is nothing! You should’ve been with us five, six months ago! Whoa! You talk about puke! We ran into a hailstorm over the Sea of Japan. Everybody’s retching their guts out! The pilot shot his lunch all over the windshield, and I barfed on the radio! Shorted it out completely! And it wasn’t that lightweight stuff either, it was that chunky industrial weight puke! [offers him the candy bar he’s been eating] Hey, you want a bite?
Jack Ryan: Jack, next time you get a bright idea just put it in a memo!
Frivolous stuff, to be sure, but all this dialog rings true because in my experience, people tend to resort to comfortable metaphors and idioms even in the face of stressful situations. Everybody speaks distinctively in The Hunt for Red October, and director John McTiernan gives the actors the breathing room necessary to let the script take flight. The result? An espionage thriller that feels like it’s populated with real people. That’s the key to any storytelling!