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Sunday Classics Matinee: The Hunt for Red October

by Robb Reel

I am admittedly not much of a reader anymore.  I read so much as a kid all the way through college.  I read even more as a function of my job.  I just don't find the pleasure in reading for pleasure.  That means that my exposure to the great novels of our time usually comes from film adaptations.

So it is with The Hunt for Red October.

Directed by John McTiernan [Die Hard], this is the first film to take on Tom Clancy.  It was also Clancy's first novel, though it seems not the earliest story in his fictional timeline.  The book was written at the zenith of the 80s chapter in the Cold War but the film was released as Glasnost was just breaking out.  The Berlin Wall would crumble soon after.

Sean Connery is Capt. Marko Ramius, a career sailor and  the premier submarine commander for the Soviet Navy.  Though he is son-in-law to a top Russian admiral, Ramius is Lithuanian -- the Vilnius Schoolmaster who trained most the the sub fleet himself -- and he is mourning the loss of his wife.  When the Soviets build a "stealth sub" and put him at the helm for its launch, he hatches a plan to defect.

Jack Ryan [Alec Baldwin in maybe his first significant leading role] is a CIA analyst, a desk jockey, is thrust into the field.  He is the first to figure out the defection plot.  We learn of his exploits as a US Naval Academy cadet and Marine Corps officer as he adapts to the tense and unexpected "live fire" situations.  The combination of action and acumen could have made Baldwin an icon [more on that in a moment].

The cast is nothing short of spectacular including:

The incomparable James Earl Jones as Ryan's CIA master, Adm. Greer.

Future US Senator and presidential candidate Fred Dalton Thompson as Adm. Painter, commander of the USS Enterprise carrier group.

Sam Neill, who was born in Ulster to British parents and raised in New Zealand, nearly became James Bond after Sir Roger Moore; instead, Executive Officer and second-in-command of theRed October was the first role in which most Americans saw his skills.

Quintessential "that guy" Scott Glenn is Cmdr. Bart Mancuso, captain of the USS Dallas, pursuing the Ramius at the behest of Ryan.

I was so pleasantly surprised by Tim Curry in such a serious role as Dr. Petrov.  He made no silly jokes [Clue] nor did he don women's clothing [The Rocky Horror Picture Show].  Still, I loved his tempered performance.

The roster also boasts Courtney B. Vance, Richard Jordan, Gates McFadden, Stellan Skarsgard, Joss Ackland and Jeffrey Jones [Ed Rooney in Ferris Bueller's Day Off], each in a brilliant turn.

I did actually go back and read the novel after seeing the film... at least I tried.  McTiernan does such a wonderful job distilling the story of Clancy's overly technical descriptions while capturing every bit of the suspense.  I recognized how terrible Connery's accent was, but the craft way the director dealt with it.  I still distinctly recall thinking that Baldwin could turn this into an American James Bond series and was quite disappointed when he passed on future casting as Ryan.  For me, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck, whom I almost always enjoy, just didn't live up to the standard Baldwin set.  I even worried that the movie wouldn't stand the test of time, thanks to the rapidly changing political climate, despite how good it was.  I am so glad to have been wrong.

I also vividly remember my date for this movie, but I'll tell you about her when you're older.

For now, I heartily recommend you fire up some Jiffy Pop over the stove, fire up your memories of 25 years ago -- or ask your parents about what was going on then -- and enjoy The Hunt for Red October.