Two leaders with different philosophies about battle and leadership wage war with each other in this tense military thriller. Capt. Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman) is the commanding officer of a nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Alabama. Ramsey is a distinguished veteran near the end of his career, and he leads his men with an iron hand; as he puts it, "We're here to preserve democracy, not to practice it." Ramsey is assigned a new second-in-command, Lt. Cmmdr. Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington); Hunter is much younger than Ramsey, Harvard educated, and believes the goal of the military in the nuclear age is to prevent war, not fight it. While at sea, word reaches the Alabama that a splinter group of Russian forces have seized missile silos, and the ship is put on red alert. The Alabama has orders to fire, but as it is receiving a new incoming order the radio malfunctions.