Tony Scott’s 2 Greatest Films
Yesterday the film world learned the tragic news of veteran action director Tony Scott’s death by suicide at the age of 68. While it is heart wrenching that the world has lost a man who was, by all accounts, a wonderful, humble, and overall delightful human being, it has also lost a director whose films, while being packed with explosions, car chases and gunfights, also had a surprising amount of depth to them. Two in particular, Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State, remain to this day poignant statements on the politics of nuclear weapons and government surveillance.
Crimson Tide takes place aboard the USS Alabama, a submarine sent with a nuclear missile to Russia to act as a defense against a Russian ultranationalist who has captured a nuclear launch site and has threatened to launch them at the US. An order comes in telling the sub to launch its missiles. But, as a second order comes in, a rogue sub attacks the Alabama, damaging the communications equipment and leaving the crew with an uncertain order of a nuclear strike. Captain Frank Ramsey (portrayed brilliantly by Gene Hackman), an old-guard navy officer with years of experience, wants to launch while second in command Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington), a brilliant yet inexperience second in command, wants to wait for the communications equipment to be repaired so that the sub can receive the rest of the second order. After much arguing, a mutiny, and a weaponized standoff, the communications equipment is repaired and the first order is retracted.
The film is brilliant in how it frames the argument. Ramsey is representative of a paranoid, Cold War sensibility, while Hunter represents a new, post-Cold War generation. One which seeks peace and is calmer, more rational. The film also does not rely on action in a physical sense to create drama. While there is a submarine battle and few punches thrown, most of the drama stems from the intellectual weight of the argument being presented in front the audience as well as the ever present threat of nuclear annihilation. Scott, the brilliant visual director that he was, also uses Dutch angles, close-ups, and quick cuts to maximize the tension and visually show the tension that is abundant in the film’s characters.
All of this paints the main message of the film, which is that it is absolutely terrifying that creatures as flawed as humans have access to weapons that could wipe out all of civilization. Both Hunter and Ramsey are portrayed as flawed individuals, with their own weaknesses and fallibilities. With both sides of this extremely serious debate being somewhat unhinged, the film essentially makes the case that humans have no business with nuclear weapons. Released four years after the end of the Cold War, the film continues to be a powerful warning about how, just because the Cold War is over does not mean that the severe consequences of nuclear weapons are mute.
His other great film starring Gene Hackman, Enemy of the State, is an even more relevant one in the post-9/11 era of counter-terrorism and constant surveillance. The film stars Will Smith as a Robert Dean, a DC lawyer who, after accidently coming into possession of video tape showing an NSA official murdering a congressmen who is opposed to a surveillance expansion bill, goes on the run with the help of Brill (Gene Hackman), an ex-NSA operative who knows all the tricks and tries to help Dean escape the rogue NSA operation to kill him.
The film shows how, in an era of greater technological connectivity and reliance, how scarily easy it is to track someone down and rifle through their privacy. Like Crimson Tide, the film contains very few scenes of violence and allows most of the tension to come not only from chase scenes, but also from the paranoia which infects the atmosphere of the characters.
The film also goes to great lengths to show that Dean’s pursuers are a rogue outfit within the NSA, showing that this type of illegal surveillance is antithetical to American values. However, the presence of a surveillance bill haunts the film, showing that this type of surveillance is creeping into American law enforcement. While the film was made amidst the paranoia ridden 90’s, it is perfectly suited to capturing the very real fears of post-9/11 America filled with illegal wiretapping, drone warfare, warrantless searches and other breaches of civil liberties. Tony Scott’s death is an unmitigated tragedy. Not only because the world has lost, by all accounts, a great person. But also because the world lost a man who not only thrilled and entertained us with his films, but also made us think with them. While his influence on action films may come more from his distinct visual style rather than his plotting, these films were public forums to discuss very weighty, real-world issues, something that is sorely lacking in Hollywood today.