This year I turn 24, and it seems that several of the people I grew up with have recently (or will soon be) married. I expect this often causes people as young as myself to properly reflect on youth for the first time in their lives. Or, at least, for the first time since leaving the bulk of it behind.

During high school I, like all teenagers, went through a succession of fixations. While attempting to nail down my own identity I identified with America (to my lifelong embarrassment), with Spain, with my idea of Israel and Judaism, and even with Russia.

It probably started when, at my English teacher’s encouragement, I read Dostoyevsky. I soon learned to read Cyrillic (it’s a lot easier than it looks), to sing the Soviet anthem (and still can), though I never subscribed to the political ideologies of modern Russia. From the early revolutions establishing Socialism, to the oppressive totalitarianism that sustained it, to the equally oppressive materialism that replaced it, I was never enchanted by Russian governing theories but rather my concocted idea of “Russian-ness”.

I’d just about completely forgotten all of this until this afternoon, when I decided to watch The Hunt for Red October. I remember having read the book as a teen – and thoroughly enjoying it – but nothing more. In fact, all I remembered was that it involved a submarine chase, and sonar. I’m quite glad of this, as it made the story entirely fresh.

The first thing I noticed was the use of computers – the film was released in 1990, just as the devices were entering the popular mindset, and the sophistication of the computers portrayed was probably anachronistic. Nevertheless, even a 1990s film has people “asking the computer for an analysis” and getting magical results.

The second thing I noticed was a serious attempt at credibility in the portrayal of the Russians. The two primary Russian characters were played by Sean Connery and Sam Neill, one Scotch and the other a New Zealander (though Australians often claim him as one of our own). The first fifteen minutes or so of the film are entirely in Russian (the accents aren’t at all believable, but a mainstream audience doesn’t care) with English subtitles. The transition from spoken Russian to spoken English was done rather elegantly as well, so well that it actually took me a moment to mentally switch gears (the key word around which the switch took place was actually Hebrew “armageddon”). Even then, the Russians didn’t suddenly adopt American English, but continued with a vaguely foreign accent (I don’t think Connery can put on any other accent, but Neill did a good job).

Then there was the use of song – specifically the Soviet Anthem I had taught myself to sing as a teenager. Only years later did it dawn on me that the same rousing song of a hundred contra-bassi Russian men would trigger memories of terror in millions of people who had grown up hearing it. In the film it is sung by the submarine crew early in the plot, when they have confounded a pursuing American submarine. The song starts out poorly, sung out of tune, out of time, and uncomfortably by ashen-faced men. As the situation improves, however, as well as the mood of the captain, the quality of the singing improves with it (as well as the pronunciation of the lyrics).

This movie is definitely not a typical cold war era “good and noble defenders of democracy crush vile, wicked, foreign minions of capitalism”. Halfway through the film I had to consciously abandon the presumption that I could tell the American submarine apart from the Russian by the colour of the lights (blue for Americans, red for Russians). What’s more, the Russians are depicted with proper humanity – particularly Ramius (Connery’s character), whose reasons for defection to America are touched periodically.

This film did not preach about the inherent superiority of one system or the fundamental depravity of the other. It did not feature a bungling, stupid antagonist being outwitted by a wiley, superior antagonist. What’s more, the central American protagonist (Alec Baldwin) was young, humble, and weak (too uncomfortable to sleep on planes, nervous speaking before military brass) but had a softness for his young daughter, a fondness for the enigmatic Ramius, and a quiet but unshakable resolve that caused several stern commanders to back down.

In fact, the impression with which I was left at the end of the film stands as a contrast to the rest of Clancy’s writing. I remember this book being my first by Tom Clancy, and encouraging me to explore more of his work (first Rainbow Six and then others), eventually abandoning him entirely because of his fixation on America’s universal dominance, not to mention his overuse of the “flawed protagonist” model – I just can’t get behind the idea of a “good guy” who cheats on his wife. Perhaps the rift between these impressions is to the credit of the director, who certainly made the story more appealing to me as a viewer with no pre-existing jingoistic attachment to America.

It seems the great message was not that war was necessary, nor that war was universally unnecessary, but rather that a machine built for no purpose but to start a war was a grave evil. The film leaves the reader to make up his own mind about the decades of fear bred by the relationship between East and West, but also gives the viewer a peaceful resolution – memories of a grandfather teaching one to fish at the river.

et aliis tradere

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