The Number One Movie in America: Crimson Tide

By Sean Collier

March 31, 2020

Missing Mr. Hackman

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The year-end box office charts for 1995 are a bit odd.

The top two spots look fairly normal, with Pixar on top and a superhero not far behind. The original “Toy Story” won the yearly race with $191 million, followed by “Batman Forever” at $184 million. Disney (“Pocahontas,” 4th place with $141 million) and James Bond (“Goldeneye,” 6th place with $106 million) are also unsurprising top-ten finishers.

But an underwhelming comedy sequel — “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls” — finished 5th for the year, pulling in more than $108 million (ahead of Bond). An utterly forgotten family feature, the live-action “Casper,” is in 8th with $100 million. A dark-as-night thriller, “Seven,” was a top-ten finisher, in 9th with $100 million, while mega-budget tentpoles missed the top of the charts; notorious boondoggle “Waterworld” landed in 12th with $88 million, and Michael Crichton adaptation “Congo” finished in 16th with $81 million, behind sleepy fare such as “While You Were Sleeping” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus.”

With results like that, I can’t decide what’s more shocking: That the stellar popcorn flick “Crimson Tide” didn’t demolish its competition, or that it did as well as it did. (It finished in 11th place, earning $91 million.)

The Denzel Washington/Gene Hackman pas de deux was scheduled poorly, opening just one week before direct competition from “Die Hard With a Vengeance.” “Crimson Tide” undoubtedly played to similar demographics as the “Die Hard” sequel.


The subject matter, however, couldn’t have been more different. You’d be forgiven for thinking that “Crimson Tide” is an action movie; outside of a few moments of incoming torpedos and brandished pistols, however, you could recreate it in a black-box theater. This is no fisticuffs-and-chutzpah adventure; rather, it’s a tense drama, pitting its well-drawn characters against one another in a battle of minds and wills.

It’s excellent, by the way.

Washington and Hackman are in full form, working each other at the edges to see who can raise the other’s blood pressure. Director Tony Scott was never better, simultaneously highlighting the intimidating confinement of the submarine setting and shooting his limited stages in such a way as to maximize visual drama. It’s fundamentally a movie-length argument, yes, but the stakes are so high — and so keenly felt — that “Crimson Tide” is as thrilling as an Indiana Jones escape sequence.

(And while this is not a mark of quality, “Crimson Tide” is also a treasure trove of early-career supporting performances. A babyfaced Viggo Mortensen switches sides; a gruff James Gandolfini intimidates; a hapless Steve Zahn ... does all the Steve Zahn things. Look for a blink-and-you’ll-miss it role by Ryan Phillipe, as well; he spends his feature debut staring at a fishtank.)

“Crimson Tide” was certainly a success; finishing just shy of the year’s ten top earners is nothing to sneer at. It was nominated for three Oscars. Yet lesser pictures from the same era (and, indeed, from the same director) are more frequently remembered. Like I said: This is an excellent movie.

“Crimson Tide” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1982. Please listen and subscribe!

Next time: Marky Mark gets buff; The Rock gets buffer..



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