For the Love of Red October

There’s a short list of movies that I am always in the mood to watch; at the top is The Hunt for Red October—for all its formulaic glory.  After coming home late from a baseball game last night, my family suggested that we put it in.  Butter-saturated popcorn and IBC root beers in hand, we snuggled down to watch a movie that we can all quote by heart.

Why is that?

The sheer volume of movies produced in the early part of last century and the sheer volume of new series constantly promoted on network and cable TV would imply a need for constant change and stimulation.  On the other hand, most of those movies and series could all be summed up in generic codes: chick flick, action, adventure, thriller, horror, comedy, drama.  (And within those, as Netflix informs me in my “Recommended” tab, there are infinitely finer distinctions, such as critically-acclaimed-strong-female-lead-foreign dramas.)  The formulas have endless variations.

I could contemplate how generic code complies with the human need for uniform variety–whatever the hell that means—or I could simply explain why, of all those possibilities, my family and I continue to return to The Hunt for Red October.  And, as any audience response theorist would champion, I think it comes down to our daily lives, the society in which we live, the questions we face every morning, and the need for reassurance at the end of the day.

It particularly struck me last night that this movie about the Cold War was released one year after the Fall of the Berlin Wall.  It was such a blatant political affirmation of the demise of the U.S.S.R. and the triumph of American ideals: driving from state to state in a pick-up truck.  And yet all its obvious politicizing doesn’t explain why I have loved this movie since I was far too young to even comprehend what politics was.

the mind game of men

the mind game of men

So then I turn to another reason I have often touted: there are no woman in the film (with the notable exceptions of a nagging wife, a precious little girl, and a fuzzy black-and-white image).  During my high school days at the end of a long gab session after gym class, I would relish the total absence of “drama” in The Hunt for Red October.  Women are put forth as the necessary objects of male sentimentality, bravado, and inspiration, but their own feminine weakness and ambiguity is obscured by the rising tides of cool male analysis and straightforward tactical procedure that apparently transcends all political codes or cultural constructions to reach the heights of “universal knowledge.”  Bullshit.  It would be a delightful exercise to argue why women are at the center of an almost entirely male movie, but I’ll leave that to another day of academic pursuits.  Suffice it to say, that female role models or a safe haven from femininity’s worser aspects do not justify my unwavering devotion to Captain Ramius and Bart Mancuso.

I am, I confess, I little starstruck.  For all my neglect of female considerations, perhaps that is the one inexorable aspect which I must concede: Sean Connery is damn attractive.  As an object of feminine fancy and masculine aspirations, he fits the bill.  But how can a seventy-year-old actor could hold my fifty-year-old father and my fifteen-year-old sister equally spellbound is a puzzle worth solving.  And, therein, I believe is my answer to our love for Red October.

Our lives are hard.  My dad works every day to bring money home for our family.  My sister works everyday to prepare herself for the eventuality that she, too, will one day work to bring home money for herself.  And I work everyday to graduate from dependency to independence.  We don’t complain–and are actually very grateful to ourselves for the effort and our bosses for their monetary acknowledgement of that effort–but a working life is damn difficult.  The stakes are high because our world is no longer tied to the simplicity of growing your own food, making your own clothes, and building your own house—for which I am also grateful.  But the intricacies of our modern economies make us increasingly dependent on what is left over when our hands are tied: our brain.

a submarine: the ultimate metaphor of modernity

a submarine: the ultimate metaphor of modernity

And that’s why at the end of any given day of the week, we will all sit down to watch The Hunt for Red October.  It is a story of men who live or die by their minds.  Their hands are tied.  They cannot support or release their emotions by a punch to jaw or a swift flight down an alley.  They must wait.  In many days of silence, in tiny cubicles of living space, under the watery weight of a world in which they can no longer fight for survival alongside the  other organic bodies.  Enclosed a metallurgical casket of sorts, dead bodies and living minds, they must maneuver complicated man-made mechanisms, both real and imagined, in order to resurrect themselves on shore after the long voyage.  They are never given all the information they need.  They are never given leisure to research or contrive other options.  They are never given the full support of the citizenship they have inherited from the hundreds of generations trying to carve civilization out of a spinning planetary orb.  They are alone in the battle, friend or foe for the taking.

Now, that was rather prosaic of me, but I think my case is born out in the characters of Marko Ramius and Bart Mancuso.  Two men given enormous responsibility and an incredible dearth of resource.  Each moment is a crisis decision: murdering the political officer, breaking contact with the fleet, fleeing to a dangerous canyon, tracking a silent sub, breaking off to pick up an analyst crazy enough to jump out of a helicopter in a storm to get aboard, starting a conversation with the man you are ordered to kill, sending one ping and one ping only please.  Now, of course, one could argue that’s just their job, that if you get involved in the military, that’s what you get.

But I think the  understated performances of Sean Connery and Scott Glenn reinforce the idea that this is normal life.  There is nothing epic about humanity trying to survive.  In a poignant irony, the things that thrill our inner selves—the Montana homestead, the pick-up truck, and the fishing pole—are silenced and displaced so that we can actually retain our lives.  And how many times does every working person do this to themselves every day?  How often must I not read or write or travel or make love or sing or dance or garden or paint or cook because I have to work.  Or not even work, but preserve my opportunity to work.  Preserve my right to work. Preserve my ability to work.

The complex economy and politics we have constructed to accelerate our wealth, productivity, and power may have come at the cost of our own selves—at least our bodies and souls.  This thought, again, is nothing new; hundreds and thousands of other people have chafed under “modernity.”  But just because it isn’t a new thought doesn’t mean I am already comforted.  And watching The Hunt for Red October is comforting.  Because I face this true cost of living every day, it is comforting to see men facing crisis decisions with little or nothing to offer, take a gamble, and come out on the other side—no thanks to the strong arms of the world powers.  Perhaps it is an American political ideal to nurture the hope of the individual in the face of everything else; perhaps it is a school-girl crush to take refuge in masculine prowess; and perhaps it is unrealistic to feed on impossible probabilities.

But feed I must or my heart will fail.

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