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The Accidental Parenting Lesson Hidden In ‘Crimson Tide’

Is dealing with kids like being trapped on a nuclear submarine?

Disney

Crimson Tide checks every box of a Simpson-Bruckheimer modern action-thriller classic—and offers a little-acknowledged bonus: an ace parenting clinic run by its clashing leads. These are nuclear submarine captain Ramsey, played by the redoubtable Gene Hackman, and his second-in-command Hunter, played by peak-Denzel Washington. These two heavyweights are paired in at a moment of the global nuclear crisis. Ultra-nationalists in Russia have seized control of the country’s nuclear silos; the U.S.S. Alabama is among the forces being positioned for a pre-emptive strike.

Captain Ramsey’s usual XO has been sidelined by appendicitis, and this elite post has been filled by new-guy Hunter, who sits parked at port, saying goodbye to family, and flexing some dad skills. Seeing his son’s scared expression, he deploys tactical redirection. “I’m worried about T,” he tells the little boy, nodding to the golden retriever in back. “She doesn’t know what’s going on. She thinks I’m going away forever.” Thus promoted, the kid proudly smiles and promises to comfort the dog while he’s gone.

Once underway, Ramsey and Hunter stake out their respective positions: the combat-seasoned company man, untested brilliant analyst. As one crisis follows another, screenwriter Michael Schiller builds an all-too-credible conflict between older and younger dads, both of whom turn out to be, terrifyingly, neither right nor wrong.

When a fire breaks out in the galley. Hunter rushes in to put it out and calm the crew; Ramsey starts a drill to test their response to a launch command. “What the hell’s he running a mission drill now for?” mutters Hunter as he runs to the bridge, where he interrupts the drill to say as much to Ramsey. When a sailor dies from smoke inhalation, Ramsey looks like one of Hollywood’s drill-sergeant Bad Dads: callous, negligent, inflexibly gung-ho. Then Ramsey buttonholes Hunter for a private word in his quarters, and this script gets flipped.

Seated quietly, Ramsey acknowledges Hunter’s feelings, explains his reasons for ordering the drill, then confronts Hunter’s assumptions: “What’d you think, son?” he asks. “That I was just some crazy old coot putting everyone in harm’s way as I yelled ‘YEE-HA’?” Hunter pauses gives a qualified apology, and Hackman delivers one of the all-time killer monologues of any procedural drama. He tells Hunter that he welcomes his criticism and disagreement—just not in front of the kids. “Those sailors out there are just boys,” Ramsey says. “Boys who are training to do a terrible and unthinkable thing. If that ever occurs, the only reassurance they’ll have is their unqualified belief in the unified chain of command. That means we don’t question each other’s motives in front of the crew. It means we don’t undermine each other.”

The third time my wife negated something I’d just told our son, in our son’s presence, I found Capt. Ramsey speaking through me—but at a greatly reduced rank (maybe ensign). I don’t know if what I said was right, but I do know how scared a kid gets seeing her parents waffling on tough choices in hard moments.

With his softer touch, Hunter coaxes clutch performances from the crew—at one point using what a child psychologist calls “The Batman Effect”: telling a stressed-out kid to let his alter-ego handle a tough task. Hunter hails the communications room by intercom to address a young man whose ability to fix the busted coms may decide the fate of the world. “Mr. Vossler,” Washington begins softly. “This Captain Kirk”—referring to an earlier joke likely written by uncredited collaborator Quentin Tarantino—“I need warp speed on that communicator.” Vossler smiles, his face relaxes, and he gets it sorted.

When shit goes South on a nuclear sub on the brink of war, it really does so with a vengeance. Just as the Alabama is dodging enemy subs, getting rocked by torpedoes, and barely managing not to sink, the crew receives an Emergency Action Message telling them to surface and launch their nukes. Here, we see Ramsey, Hunter, and a handful of officers perform the pants-shitting protocols: breaking seals, reading the fatal codes aloud, cross-checking, and authenticating each action with an “I concur, sir.” Finally, they retrieve the same keys we saw two NORAD guys use in the ICBM silo at the start of War Games—tools in the synchronized-key turn buddy-system process that unleashes hell on earth. At every step, baleful faces of young crew members study the officers’ expressions.

Just before they launch, another Emergency Action Message comes in, only partially, leaving an apocalyptic mad-lib: “Subject: Nuclear Missile Laun……..” ..is canceled? …is on? …is delayed?” At this, Ramsey insists that they act on the orders at hand and launch nukes. Hunter says to wait for the rest of the last message.  They keep their voices low as they debate (“It could be a message to abort, it could be– “It could be a fake Russian transmission”). They fall to a whisper as they harden their positions, casting sidelong glances at crewmembers within earshot until Ramsey begins a monologue that ends “now SHUT THE FUCK UP!” Stricken faces of crewmates appear in three separate reaction shots.

Then, a scene of screaming, threats, a tussle for control. Picture a custody fight and restraining orders with sidearms and nuclear weapons. And through it all, we keep seeing the terrified expressions of sailors who are just boys, boys trained to do a terrible and unthinkable thing. They’re nearly indistinguishable from the faces of little kids when mommy and daddy hit DEFCON 2. The brilliance of Crimson Tide is in discovering a deadly conflict that’s not out there in the inky depths,å but right in here, with us. It’s up to us to navigate without killing each other.

Crimson Tide is available to rent for $3.99 on Amazon Prime.