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Disney Studios 6304765258

Reds and blues define this film as surely as they do political parties in the upcoming election. Initially, blues bathe the screen in odes to oceans and naval uniforms. They slide right into a nuclear submarine, too, swathing the interior with cobalt and indigo. But soon, deep inside, solar glare becomes alarm lights -- and imploding stars. The question of competent leadership ignites fires both in the heart and in the hold.

DVD: crimson tide "We're here to preserve democracy, not practice it," declares Captain Ramsey. Such lines echo a tormenting theme of our time. Played by Gene Hackman, this commander earns, simultaneously, our respect, sympathy, and disgust. We know very well that he would die for his men -- his decisions may also precipitate an irreversible holocaust. Thus his performance as the embattled leader plays off the greatest portraits of man at sea, especially Captain Ahab (Moby Dick) and Captain Bligh (Mutiny on the Bounty).

Released in 1995, the film follows classic symbolism, with the submarine representing the ship of state. Nowhere do individuals prove more vulnerable or isolated than when shore recedes into mirage. Then government all too easily turns into dictatorship. The threat of an ambiguous enemy forges the sailors into opposing forces. Competing dooms (tyranny, mutiny, nuclear attack) transform their lives into bedlam. A balanced script ensures that no one emerges unscathed from the hellfire of responsibility.

The lives of all onboard depend on cooperation during a crisis. Carrying this theme like a cross, Denzel Washington destroys the chain of command in order to save it. As the second in command, he must act as a counter force if the captain's life-and-death decision proves wrong. In the heat of the moment -- and many such moments occur here -- only correctness counts. Neither tenure nor character nor even intentions matter. With a coolness worthy of an admiral, Washington requests the keys to life and death.

Every decision made, though, only boomerangs this vessel into rising or sinking in a desperate search for survival. Where oh where lies the solidity of land and certainty? Nowhere for a young officer untested by battle! As factions develop more quickly than ballots, groups congeal into militants with weapons in hand. The worst weapons, though, consist of both the missiles they shrink from using -- even under direct orders -- and the missiles that may make all decisions futile. The quandaries of nuclear button-pushers emerge with a human face here -- and no easy choices.

Shades of blue drench the entire movie, implying that the hair-raising plot occurs beneath the surface of consciousness. There skin dissolves into flower and earth tones; young and old become indistinguishable. At any moment, the sea itself could make impossible decisions for all humankind. Nevertheless, this film offers reassurance: democracy bursts forth in many forms, but none better than mutual respect and humble friendship. See Crimson Tide to celebrate this Fourth of July -- and every one after.

Meg Curtis

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