A fire breaks out in the galley of the USS Alabama. Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington), the vessel’s XO, rushes in to extinguish the blaze. Just as the flames die down, Captain Frank Ramsey decides to drill the men on launch procedures. When Hunter, fearing the fire might not yet be fully contained, openly questions his judgment, the captain orders him to, more or less, keep his mouth shut. Ramsey’s main concern is to test his crew’s ability to perform under extreme pressure; Hunter’s is to prevent unnecessary loss of life.
This brief, early scene pretty much sums up the conflict that drives the action in Tony Scott’s suspenseful submarine thriller—a violent clash of opinions, of ideals, of philosophies. The looming threat of global nuclear holocaust simply raises the stakes. When the Alabama receives contradictory orders, tensions between the two stubborn protagonists escalate—Ramsey believes it is his duty to preemptively fire on a massive force of Russian ultranationalists, while Hunter feels it would be irresponsible (to say the very least) to strike while the sub is “blind and crippled.” Factions quietly form, loyalties are tested (Viggo Mortensen gives an especially strong performance), and the line between right and wrong blurs—all the ingredients a talented filmmaker needs to cook up a delicious character-driven drama.