”It’s a war, Jack, a real war,” Vice Admiral James Greer, deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, warns ace CIA analyst Jack Ryan in the concluding pages of Tom Clancy’s best-selling 1984 techno-thriller, The Hunt for Red October. But as this edge-of-destruction account of a Soviet submarine commander’s attempt to defect to the West was making its way to the big screen a funny thing happened: The Cold War turned into the Big Thaw.
By April 3, 1989, when Paramount Pictures began principal photography on the estimated $30 million production (starring Sean Connery as Soviet sub captain Marko Ramius and Alec Baldwin as the CIA’s Ryan), the Soviets had just conducted open elections for their Congress. And by February, just before the film’s scheduled opening this week in over 1,000 theaters, the Soviet government followed Eastern Europe’s lead and announced that the Communist Party was no longer totally in charge.
With postwar East-West political realities shaken (like a 007 martini) so severely during the past year, gallant Cold Warrior Jack Ryan stood in danger of becoming just another spy left out in the cold.
But Red October’s producer, Mace Neufeld, doesn’t see it quite that way. ”The Cold War aspect never really represented a major problem,” he says. ”From the beginning, we were determined not to turn it into a Russia-bashing movie. It’s about a man defecting, one government that’s trying to stop him, and our government, which is trying to help him. It’s a fairly simple story.” Neufeld bought Clancy’s story before it was published, way back in 1983, when communism was still alive and kicking.
Director John McTiernan (Die Hard) views his film in more mythic terms. ”This is a sea story,” he says, ”and all sea stories are the same: A boy goes down to the sea in ships, is swept off into a weird world of colorful male characters, learns to stand up and be a man among men, and he comes home forever changed.
”The fact that the boy in this case, Jack Ryan, happens to be a man of about 33 doesn’t change it. It’s a boy’s adventure. And that story architecture is in all sea stories-whether it’s Moby Dick or Treasure Island or Jack London.”
Still, this particular sea story can’t ignore the swell of current events. So an on-screen crawl at the beginning of the movie advises, ”On November 13, 1984, approximately four months before Mikhail Gorbachev took power in the Soviet Union, a Russian Typhoon class submarine surfaced briefly in the Atlantic just north of Bermuda. It subsequently sank in deep water after suffering massive radiation leakage. Unconfirmed reports indicated some of the crew was rescued. According to repeated statements by both Soviet and American governments…nothing of what you are about to see…ever happened.”
But even by placing the story in the now distant past of 1984, the impact of the thriller still ultimately rests on the audience’s ability to reaccept some political beliefs that are daily being called into question: namely, that Reds are menacing.
In fact, the main motivation for Ramius’ defection in the film is that the Red October represents a new class of advanced first-strike capability for the Soviets; it’s a weapon that his government might use and that’s why he hatches his plot.
That’s not to say that an American-Soviet alliance is likely to crop up anytime soon, but it does appear that the superpowers have stepped back-if only a little-from the abyss of nuclear destruction.
In any event, Paramount isn’t taking any chances that this movie could be construed as a Cold War relic. There’s no mention of any Soviet threat in the striking poster art developed for the studio by advertising designer Tony Seiniger. Ironically, Seiniger drew his inspiration from Soviet poster art, with its strong red, white, and black graphics, in constructing the teaser campaign, focusing on the silhouette of the sub’s conning tower rising, like the highlight of a huge black eyeball, amid a field of red.
”The whole campaign was designed to have a techno-suspense quality to it,” says Seiniger. ”From the very, very beginning, even before the Wall came down, we said to ourselves as designers, ‘No hammers and sickles.’ Because it’s not a political picture. It’s an edge-of-your-seat thriller. You put a hammer and sickle in it, you immediately skew it for an older audience. No kids want to go see a political movie.”
Insisting that its marketing campaign is ”focused on the merits of the film and is not an attempt to avoid anything,” a Paramount spokesman rejected any suggestions that the studio is trying to camouflage the movie’s Cold War origin. ”But they’re very nervous about it,” a rival marketing executive comments. ”The world has changed. Gorbachev was Time’s Man of the Decade. Defection is no longer an issue.”