Small Stakes

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I recently rewatched The Hunt for Red October, which turns 25 this year. This is one of those action movies I can revisit again and again without diminishing returns, but only partly because it's a relic from my childhood. [footnote]The film hit theaters a few months before I turned 8; I probably saw it for the first time around age 12.[/footnote] Rather, it remains such a compelling film because it maintains steady, calm focus on the human stakes at hand. International espionage and acts of war are discussed, but those are head-fakes. The real story here is about two men on separate but overlapping missions, and how they go about doing them. No cities are destroyed, no worlds are blown apart. There aren't even that many deaths. The worry of a nuclear strike isn't real, either: the U.S. officials consider it a possibility, but Ramius is a defector, not a madman. It is, compared with the blockbusters of today, a small film. And that's the key to its appeal. Modern blockbusters are usually about the world being in peril, at which point various superheroes or powers are allied to bring civilization back from annihilation. The Marvel movies are opening this up to the entire universe. But The Hunt for Red October is small-stakes action storytelling, which is to say it's about the people, not the pyrotechnics. "Small" might be misleading here, since this is still an action movie fueled by memories of the Cold War that had just ended; I just mean "smaller than would come to be the norm." When the world is constantly in danger on the big screen, then we as audiences grow numb to outsized narratives. But when the action is rooted in personal relationships and allowed to play out on a regional level, then we're able to get our hands around it. It's no accident that director John McTiernan helmed Die Hard in 1988 and Red October two years later, and that both action films not only stand the test of time [footnote]Die Hard is maybe the best American action film of the modern era. More than 25 years later, no one has topped it.[/footnote], but that they're also all about relationships. Die Hard means nothing if we don't see John McClane struggling to reconnect with, and ultimately save, his wife. Similarly, Red October means nothing if we don't have Ramius mourning his wife and reckoning with his life's meaning, or Jack Ryan doing his best to keep the peace. By staying small, by sticking with these people and making the story matter to them, the filmmaker creates something that works for everyone.