The film was scored by Hans Zimmer, who won a Grammy Award for the main theme, which makes heavy use of synthesizers in place of traditional orchestral instruments.
An extended cut, which incorporated seven minutes of deleted scenes, was released on DVD in 2006. When the film was released on Blu-ray two years later, however, the film was restored to the theatrical version.
In post-Soviet Russia, civil war erupts as a result of the ongoing conflict in Chechnya. Military units loyal to Vladimir Radchenko, a Russian ultra-nationalist, take control of a nuclear missile installation and are threatening nuclear war if either the American or Russian governments attempt to confront him.
A US Navy nuclear submarine, USS Alabama, is assigned to a patrol mission to be available to launch its missiles in a pre-emptive strike if Radchenko attempts to fuel his missiles. Captain Frank Ramsey is the commanding officer, one of few commanders left in the US Navy with combat experience. He chooses as his new XO Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter, who has an extensive education in military history and tactics, but no combat experience.
During their initial days at sea tension between Ramsey and Hunter becomes apparent due to a clash of personalities: Hunter's more analytical, cautious approach, as opposed to Ramsey's more impulsive and intuitive approach. The Alabama eventually receives an Emergency Action Message, ordering the launch of ten of its missiles against the Russian nuclear installation, based on satellite information that the Russians' missiles are being fuelled. Before the Alabama can launch its missiles, a second radio message begins to be received, but is cut off by the attack of a Russian Akula-class submarine loyal to Radchenko.
The radio electronics are damaged in the attack and cannot be used to decode the second message. With the last confirmed order being to launch Captain Ramsey decides to proceed. Hunter refuses to concur as is required because he believes the partial second message may be a retraction. Hunter argues that the Alabama is not the only American submarine in the area, and if the order is not retracted, other submarines will launch their missiles as part of the fleet's standard redundancy doctrine. Ramsey argues that the other American submarines may have been destroyed.
When Hunter refuses to consent Ramsey tries to relieve him of duty and replace him with a different officer. Instead Hunter orders the arrest of Ramsey for attempting to circumvent protocol. The crew's loyalty is divided between Hunter and Ramsey, but the Chief of the Boat sides with Hunter ("by the book") in having Ramsey relieved of command and confined to his stateroom, putting Hunter in command. The Alabama is attacked again by the Russian submarine. The Alabama destroys it but during the chaos a counter-mutiny ensues and Ramsey retakes the bridge, confining Hunter, the Chief of the Boat and a few others to the officers' mess.
Hunter escapes his arrest and gains the support of the weapons officer in the missile control room further delaying the launch. Other crew members try to repair the radio while the battle for command continues. Eventually Ramsey traps Hunter on the bridge thus quelling all mutinous actions, but with the radio team reporting they are near success, the two men agree to a compromise; they will wait until the deadline for missile launch to see if the radio can be repaired.
After several tense minutes communications are restored and they finally see the full message from the second transmission. It is a retraction ordering that the missile launch be aborted because Radchenko's rebellion has been quelled. After returning to base Ramsey and Hunter are put before a naval tribunal to answer for their actions. The tribunal concludes that both men were simultaneously right and wrong so Hunter's actions were lawfully justified.
Unofficially the tribunal chastises both men for failing to resolve the issues between them. Thanks to Ramsey's personal recommendation the tribunal agrees to grant Hunter command of his own sub while allowing Ramsey to save face via an early retirement. Both men then reconcile their differences and part ways.
The film has uncredited additional writing by Quentin Tarantino, much of it being the pop-culture-reference laden dialogue.
In 1993 the Navy allowed studio executives researching the movie to embark aboard Trident submarine USS Florida from Bangor, Washington, with the Gold Crew. Those embarked included Hollywood Pictures president Ricardo Mestres, director Tony Scott, producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, screenwriter Micheal Schiffer, and writer Richard Henrick. While aboard, the Navy allowed the film crew to videotape the Florida's Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander William Toti, performing many of the same actions (Executive Officer's response to fire, flooding, missile launch sequence, etc.) that actor Denzel Washington eventually performed as Executive Officer in the movie. Washington's remarkably accurate portrayal of a Trident submarine Executive Officer in the movie may have been due to the fact he studied these videotapes of Toti to prepare for the role.
The Navy had been led to believe that the movie's storyline was going to be about a Trident submarine crew attempting to stop the ship's (fictional) computer from launching nuclear missiles and starting World War III. In movie parlance, the Navy was told the story would be "Hunt for Red October meets 2001: A Space Odyssey." The Navy wanted the Florida crew to prove to the studio executives that "there is no computer on a Trident submarine that can launch missiles, hence the storyline is implausible.
Following the at-sea walk-through and missile launch demonstration, the Florida returned to port to drop off the studio executives. During that transit, Toti spent a great deal of time in the ship's wardroom with the studio executives, walking them through the missile launch redundancy procedures. A few months later, the studio returned to the Navy with the revised storyline, and the Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Hunter (the Denzel Washington character) was now leading a mutiny against the commanding officer to prevent a missile launch.
Some within the Navy alleged that Toti had planted the seed of the mutiny storyline in the heads of the producers during their wardroom visit. The possibility that a sitting Trident Executive Officer had potentially discussed the possibility of a mutiny to prevent a missile launch was understandably worrisome to senior submarine officials. However, Bruckheimer has insisted that the movie was always about the Executive Officer leading a mutiny, and the computer-gone-wild storyline was possibly just a ruse for the film executives to get onto the real submarine.
In the end, the U.S. Navy objected to many of the elements in the script—particularly mutiny on board a U.S. naval vessel—and as such, the film was produced without the U.S. Navy's assistance. The French Navy (Marine Nationale) assisted the team for production with the French aircraft carrier Foch and one Triomphant class SNLE (SSBN). The dockside scene in which Captain Ramsey addresses the crew with the Alabama in the background and the crew then runs on board actually features USS Barbel. The sail ("conning tower") was a plywood mock-up since Barbel's sail had been removed. Barbel had been sold by the U.S. Navy and was being scrapped.
Because of the U.S. Navy's refusal to cooperate with the filming, the production company was unable to secure footage of a submarine submerging. After checking to make sure there was no law against filming naval vessels, the producers waited at the submarine base at Pearl Harbor until a submarine put to sea. After a submarine (coincidentally, the real USS Alabama) left port, they pursued it in a boat and helicopter, filming as they went. They continued to do so until it submerged, giving them the footage they needed to incorporate into the film.
The musical score for Crimson Tide was composed by Hans Zimmer, and employs a blend of orchestra, choir and synthesizer sounds. It includes additional music by Nick Glennie-Smith and was conducted by Harry Gregson-Williams. Within the score is the well-known naval hymn, "Eternal Father, Strong to Save". The score won a Grammy Award in 1996 for Best Instrumental Composition Written for a Motion Picture or for Television, and Zimmer has described it as one of his personal favorites.
Crimson Tide earned $18.6 million in the United States on its opening weekend, which ranked #1 for all films released that week. Overall, it earned $91 million in the U.S. and an additional $66 million internationally, for a total of $157.3 million.
The film received mostly positive reviews from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 87% of 46 critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 7.5 out of 10. A number of critics cited Hackman and Washington's performances, and enjoyed the film's snappy, pop culture inflected dialogue.
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, "This is the rare kind of war movie that not only thrills people while they're watching it, but invites them to leave the theater actually discussing the issues," and ultimately gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four. Meanwhile, Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "Crimson Tide has everything you could want from an action thriller and a few other things you usually can't hope to expect."
Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly wrote that, "what makes Crimson Tide a riveting pop drama is the way the conflict comes to the fore in the battle between two men. ... The end of the world may be around the corner, but what holds us is the sight of two superlatively fierce actors working at the top of their game."
Crimson Tide was nominated for three Academy Awards, for Editing, Sound (Kevin O'Connell, Rick Kline, Gregory H. Watkins and William B. Kaplan) and Sound Editing (George Watters II).
The film closely parallels events that occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis onboard Soviet submarine B-59, with Denzel Washington's character reflecting Soviet second-in-command Vasili Arkhipov.