Down Periscope

Down Periscope. 20th Century Fox 1996.
Down Periscope. 20th Century Fox 1996.

Before watching the movie:

I first heard of this movie when I saw pieces of it on TV. Not enough to get more idea of what it was than a trailer could have told me, but Kelsey Grammer caught my attention. It’s been years, so I’ve forgotten much more than “Kelsey Grammer, submarine, ragtag misfits, wargame”, but this finally rose to the top of my list.

On the other hand, that limits what I can say about my expectations. It’s clearly an underdog submarine comedy, and I’m not sure what else I can expect. What little I’ve heard about it otherwise suggests it’s not very good, but I’d hardly call it infamous.

After watching the movie:

Lt. Cdr. Tom Dodge is considered an exemplary Naval submarine service officer, though unorthodox. The chief obstacle to his getting a command is Rear Adm. Graham, whose prejudice against him largely comes from a scandalous tattoo Dodge got one drunken night as an ensign. As a compromise, the brass give Dodge the worst command assignment Graham can come up with: he’s given a rusty decommissioned diesel submarine to command in a war game to simulate whether the Navy could defend against one renegade Soviet captain with a submarine. He’s encouraged to think like a pirate and do whatever it takes to launch a simulated attack on a Naval port. As if being out-manned, out-gunned, and out-equipped wasn’t enough, Graham also hand-picks the worst crew possible, including a high-strung Executive Officer, a rebellious seaman trying to get himself thrown in the brig, and the first female servicewoman allowed on a sub. While pulling this crew together into something capable of outfoxing the entire Navy, Dodge also has to contend with Adm. Graham doing his darnedest to end Dodge’s game and career.

I can’t think of a “ragtag misfits” story that wasn’t at least decent, but this movie is just a lot of fun. Most of Dodge’s crew are funny, or at least have actually funny moments. There’s plenty of interesting submarine tactics that are both plausible and often funny. The whole thing is cartoonish, and not out to win any awards, but it’s just too much fun to fault it for much.

And now I will complain about it. The movie underutilizes some people. Of course, the large ensemble isn’t meant to dominate as any one person, but some of the peripheral characters could have been handled better. Dodge’s former commanding officer is almost a bit part, but played by William H. Macy. While his exit is the best thing about the character, Rob Schneider leaves halfway through the movie. And Rip Torn as Graham’s superior who’s sympathetic to Dodge is practically only guest starring.

For most of the movie, I liked dive officer Lt. Emily Lake. I’d argue she’s the third-most important character in the story. They got some good mileage out of her both as the stoic only woman in a tin can full of undisciplined men and as the inexperienced, book-smart, sometimes insecure, new officer. Then in the last act they ruined the whole idea by suddenly making her a love interest. I’d complain about how many rules that relationship must be breaking, but the whole movie runs on flouting Navy regulations. The only group who would dislike this movie more than people who hate fun is military experts. But then, I think a writer would be hard-pressed to write a military comedy that doesn’t at least bend the rules a little.


Watch this movie: with some popcorn and sea salt.

Don’t watch this movie: with a drill sergeant and film snob club.

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