Based on the Tom Clancy bestseller, which was more of a technical manual on modern submarine warfare, the film managed to create an incisive character study about two kindred souls on opposite sides of the Cold War. Sean Connery plays Captain Marko Ramius, a highly respected Soviet officer in command of the new submarine Red October, which has the ability to go stealth and elude U.S. radar systems, making it a possible first strike weapon. To further alarm U.S. intelligence, he's heading directly for the East Coast.
Alec Baldwin plays Jack Ryan, a naval historian turned CIA analyst who believes Ramius intends to defect. Ryan had compiled a dossier on Ramius and believes he has valuable insight about his intentions. Ryan's main task is to convince his superiors in the CIA and the military Ramius isn't trying to start a war. It's the classic scenario of the man of books trying to persuade the men of action. Although we learn later Ryan was a former marine who opted for the academic life.
Red October is full of great supporting roles. James Earl Jones as Admiral Greer, Ryan's mentor at the CIA. Fred Dalton Thompson as an admiral, Sam Neill as Ramius's executive officer, Joss Ackland as the cagey Soviet ambassador, Richard Jordan as the shrewd National Security Advisor, Courtney B. Vance as a brilliant sonar operator, Tim Curry as a Soviet doctor, and Scott Glenn as an American sub commander who decides to trust Ryan.
John McTiernan's direction is masterful here as well, taking a complex plot and making it engaging and suspenseful. There's a realistic look to the film, never a nationalistic "look what our toys can do" type approach, but a sober minded look at the role of submarines in international relations. The film avoids all the bad Cold War cliches for the most part, except for the driven Soviet commander Tupolev (Stellan Skarsgard) pursuing Ramius. Soviet officers are humanized, while the Americans are portrayed as wise professionals doing their best to avoid a war.
Dare I say it's a movie liberals and conservatives can both appreciate. Those on the right will admire the heroic portrayal of the U.S. Navy and its respect for tradition, while those on the left will respect a movie not glorifying militarism (like many of the era), but championing decent characters employing rationality and courage to navigate themselves through a crisis.