Thursday, April 3, 2014

The 7 Best Submarine Movies Ever




"Das Boot" is one of the 7 greatest sub flicks
In the course of penning my post a couple of weeks back about the Civil War-era submarine CSS Hunley, I discovered that Hollywood had filmed an action-adventure movie about the remarkable underwater vessel and its attack on the Union sloop-of-war USS Housatonic.

“The Hunley” was a made-for-TV flick that starred Armand Assante in the role of Lt. George Dixon, skipper of the ill-fated sub. I didn’t see this movie when it aired in 1999, but I noted that “The Hunley” is available on DVD from Amazon.com and other outlets, so maybe I'll purchase it and have it on my phone for the next time I’m traveling to visit mesothelioma patients on behalf of Weitz & Luxenberg and I’m stuck at an airport somewhere due to flight delays.

I also couldn’t help noticing that “The Hunley” is considered one of the Top 20 all-time greatest submarine movies at the website Ranker.com.

Ranker.com and other movie-buff sites are pretty much in agreement on what constitutes the best of the “silent service” genre, but there’s little consensus as to the order in which those movies should be ranked.

As a former Navy submariner and current movie aficionado, I feel eminently qualified to put their choices in a proper order. Secure all hatches, because here we go:

7.  “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1954). Walt Disney Studios won a couple of Oscars for this adaptation of the 1870 Jules Verne sci-fi novel. It was shot in vivid Technicolor and was helped by a great cast that included James Mason and Kirk Douglas. The real star, though, was the Nautilus – a cool fantasy sub. Despite the plentiful swashbuckling in this movie, “20,000 Leagues” is wholesome fare perfect for family viewing (although very young children might be scared by the attack of the giant squid). Personally, I wouldn’t have placed this movie in a “best of” list, but that’s only for the reason that this movie didn’t connect with me on a personal level (even though Kirk Douglas is one of my favorite actors). I’m just not all that into make-believe submarine adventure. I like my sub fare real and gritty, taut and chilling.

6.  “K-19: The Widowmaker” (2002). When they call the K-19 a “widowmaker,” it’s not because the sub sends a lot of married enemy combatants to their graves. The deaths are all aboard the K-19, the Soviet Union’s first nuclear-powered sub (it leaks radiation like water through a sieve). This film can be painful to watch. Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson star.

5.  U-571 (2000). This year's Oscar-winning "Best Actor" Matthew McConaughey is in charge of a boarding party from a U.S. sub dressed up to resemble a Nazi U-boat. The plan is to trick one of the actual wolfpackers to come alongside so they can capture it. The German boat that takes the bait is the U-571. McConaughey and team don’t so much want the U-571 as they do what she's carrying – an Enigma machine, the highly classified device used by the Germans to encode and decode transmitted messages they wanted kept secret. Footnote: there really was a U-571 during World War II, but this movie is not based on historical events surrounding that boat.

4.  “Hunt for Red October” (1990). Tom Clancy was in a league of his own when it came to writing international espionage novels, and “Hunt for Red October” was among his finest. Here, you’ve got Sean Connery playing the renegade captain of a stealth Soviet sub, Red October. His commanders back in the Kremlin soon realize he’s a madman and order the Soviet navy to seek and destroy his ship. They can’t catch Red October by themselves, so they ask us to help. We go, “Sure, no problem.” But we don’t actually want Red October sunk. We’re only playing along with the Soviets because what we really want is to get our hands on Red October so we can have an up-close look at its no-signature caterpillar drive technology. I like this film even though it contains some distracting technical flaws – for example, the idea of an inadvertent launch isn’t plausible, submarines don't bank when they execute a turn, and they certainly can't maneuver through underwater mountain ranges.

3. “Down Periscope” (1996). Inexplicably, this Kelsey Grammer comedy never made it to Ranker.com’s list (so I’m correcting the error for them by adding it to mine). Grammer plays a much passed-over executive officer forever longing for his first submarine command. His wish comes unhappily true when the Navy gives him a rusting, barely functioning World War II-era diesel-powered boat and designates him the mock enemy in a war game against a state-of-the-art U.S. nuclear-powered sub. To ensure Grammer loses, the brass saddles him with a crew of hopeless misfits. However, Grammer is himself a misfit who thinks like a pirate and uses his outside-the-box seamanship skills to great advantage. I like this film because Grammer’s character – although an exaggeration – depicts a type of submarine commander I idolized during my Navy career: someone cagey, inventive, and known for devil-may-care derring-do exploits.

2.  “Gray Lady Down” (1978). Charlton Heston received top billing in this bottom-of-the-sea disaster vehicle that, like “Down Periscope,” never saw the light of Ranker.com’s list (even though movie-review site Rottentomatoes.com stamps it “fresh” with a 60% critic-approval rating). I was new to the sub force when this pic premiered in theaters, so it really made an impression on me. That’s why I’m taking the liberty here of adding it to Ranker.com’s big list and slotting it at No. 2. The plot finds Heston commanding the USS Neptune, which collides with a surface ship, sinks to just above crush-depth and comes to a rest teetering precariously on the rim of a deep undersea abyss. One nail-biting mishap after another further imperils the trapped crew while rescue is attempted. Besides Heston, “Gray Lady” featured a cast of terrific actors well-worth seeing perform together.

1.  “Das Boot” (1981). For realism, you can’t beat this piece of fiction. It’s about Nazi submarine U-96. The story is told entirely from the point of view of the Germans. I first saw “Das Boot” years and years ago at a film festival in San Diego. The dialogue was entirely in German with English subtitles. But the scenes were so true to life that, for me anyway, the translation was unnecessary to understand what was going on. Confession (and spoiler alert): I felt bad when – after evading the relentless Allied hunter ships and somehow managing to limp back to port – the U-96 was destroyed anyway during an air-raid on its sub pen. Yes, the U-96 crew represented the bad guys in the war, so it might not be right to characterize them as heroic. But it is accurate and fair to say they had a lot of guts, which is typical of submariners regardless of nationality.

These are all great movies. I hope you'll enjoy them as much as I do.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

When airline tickets are cheapest



Mark your calendars: the best day to buy your airline ticket for domestic travel at Thanksgiving is June 4.

On June 4, the price of a ticket for the week of Nov. 24 will be at its absolute lowest, according to a survey conducted by travel website Cheaptickets.com.

Cheaptickets.com also found that for non-holiday travel – including business-related flights (like those that Weitz & Luxenberg sends me off on to visit mesothelioma patients around the country) – you will likely save the most money by purchasing your ticket 54 days in advance of departure.

The savings can be potentially significant, says Cheaptickets.com.

For example, the difference in price for a ticket sold 54 days ahead of time and a ticket for the exact same seat on that exact same flight purchased a scant five days before departure could be right around $300.

I suppose if you’re a pint-sized, cane-twirling, white-mustachioed tycoon who wears a long-tailed tuxedo coat and top-hat to the office every day and uses a monocle instead of glasses, then $300 might not mean a lot to you.

Of course, if you’re that sort of tycoon, you probably own four different airlines (plus hotels on Park Place, Boardwalk, and Baltic Avenue) and fly free all the time anyway, so big whoop.

But, if you’re no tycoon, then every penny saved on airfare is important.

In my book, Cheaptickets.com deserves a tip of the top-hat for the yeoman’s work they did by examining fares of more than 4 million domestic and international flights last year to arrive at these useful insights.

For each of those flights, Cheaptickets.com went back and looked at fares from the time tickets became available – commonly about 315 days ahead of departure—and going forward practically right up to the moment the plane started boarding.

In addition to discovering the “T-Minus 54 Days” low-price sweet spot, they also noticed there is a window of about 75 days when fares broadly tend to be at their most attractive.

But the window doesn’t open at T-Minus 315 Days. It opens 104 days before departure.

And it closes 29 days before flight time.

What that means is you pay a higher price if you either buy too early ($33 more on average) or if you miss the window ($73 more on average).

Generally speaking, that is. There are some exceptions.

Thanksgiving is one of them. June 4, the cheapest purchase day, is roughly 165 days ahead of departure – or, said another way, about two months earlier than the low-price window normally opens for non-holiday travel bookings.

Also, the 54-days-in-advance bottom can shift depending on where you’re headed and what time of day you’re going there.

According to the survey, the cheapest day falls closer to departure if you’re flying from and to big cities. That’s because major airports offer flyers more choice of airlines and flights – this localized competition among carriers helps keep prices reduced longer.

So, if you’re looking to save money on your next trip, buy the tickets early. Be mindful, though, that you can buy too early. But, if you’re looking for a good rule of thumb it’s this: better to buy too early than too late.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Mystery of sub sinking solved (but it took a while)



Longtime mystery solved at last: the submarine Hunley sank with all hands aboard because she was too close to the enemy vessel when her torpedo detonated.

Well, gee. How could Hunley have been anything other than too close? The torpedo was not the self-propelled type shot out of an underwater tube a comfortable fifteen-hundred yards from the target. It was a 135-pound keg of gunpowder strapped to the end of a long pole extending from the sub’s bow and jabbed like a bee stinger into the hull of the opposing ship.

In case you’re scratching your head, Hunley was the first submarine in American history to sink a surface warship (in addition to itself). It happened 150 years ago this month, toward the end of the Civil War. Pole-mounted powder kegs were state-of-the-art in torpedos at the time (formally, they're called spar torpedos).

As an ex-U.S. Navy submariner (not just a mesothelioma victims’ rights advocate for the law firm Weitz & Luxenberg), I’m spellbound by this kind of stuff. Clearly, a lot of people who’ve never served aboard a sub are too, judging by the huge throng of adults and children in attendance two weeks back at the big Hunley sesquicentennial held in Charleston, S.C.

The crowds were excited because the occasion marked their first chance to see Hunley – pride of the Confederate navy – in a really up close and personal way. Until 1995, she’d lain peacefully on the ocean floor just off Charleston and, since 2000 (after she was raised and brought ashore), Hunley has been undergoing painstaking restoration in a Clemson University archeology laboratory.

During that multimillion-dollar process, the folks at Clemson made some astonishing discoveries about this remarkable, trailblazing boat. First, they found that Hunley's crude appearance hid the fact that she was actually quite advanced for the day.

Second, they figured out that Hunley was no more than 20 feet away from the enemy ship when the torpedo exploded. Consequently, they’re now pretty sure that what killed the crew was not drowning but asphyxiation. The point-blank concussion shockwave from the detonation caused Hunley’s hands to black out. Soon afterward, their air supply inside the sealed vessel was used up and they never regained consciousness.

The scientists arrived at this conclusion after noticing that the crew perished at their stations. No one attempted to abandon the doomed sub because they couldn't. They were all incapacitated.

Measuring 42 feet long and with a beam of just under 4 feet (wow, talk about cramped quarters!), Hunley carried a crew of eight. Propulsion was supplied by the sub’s hands as they labored like oarsmen to turn a crankshaft that spun a single screw astern.

Interestingly, the ship – built in Mobile, Ala. – sank twice before its famous mission. The first time was during initial sea trials. That mishap cost the lives of the entire original crew. The second time was during another shakedown cruise with a fresh crew. Again, all hands were lost (including the boat’s inventor and namesake, Horace Hunley).

But the Hunley was such a mechanical marvel and potential game-changer for the South that the Confederacy refused to give up on it – at least not before one more try. The war was going badly for the rebels, thanks in no small part to the North’s blockading of nearly all Confederate ports. The South hoped that squadrons of subs patterned after Hunley could sneak up from the depths on the Union’s blockade vessels and torpedo ‘em to smithereens. With the ports reopened, desperately needed war materiel could freely flow in once more and give the South a shot in the arm to fight on against the North.

To prove the concept, Hunley slipped out under cover of darkness from Sullivan's Island near Charleston on the night of Feb. 17, 1864, and made for the U.S.S. Housatonic, a steam-powered Union sloop-of-war on station four miles offshore. Hunley’s skipper, Lt. George Dixon, maneuvered the partially submerged boat to almost within striking distance when Housatonic spotted Hunley’s conning tower and opened fire.

More correctly, the Housatonic crew opened fire – with rifles. The sub was so low to the water that Housatonic could not point any of her dozen cannons far enough down to draw a bead on Hunley. Instead, the best they could do was use small-arms fire to pepper the ironclad sub (needless to say, the bullets bounced off).

Hunley rammed the powder-keg torpedo into the wooden hull of Housatonic amidships, leaving the explosive device implanted there. It was supposed to go off after Hunley backed away 150 feet. But something went wrong and the torpedo blew up prematurely.

It wasn’t a total muck up, though. Housatonic and five Union sailors that night joined Hunley and crew in sharing a watery grave.

What Hunley accomplished is celebrated 150 years later not just because it was an historic first. It is celebrated also because it paved the way for America to surface in the 20th Century as the world leader of submarine technology and underwater warfare know-how.


Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Not Your Father’s Airport Lounge



Next time I’m flight-delayed due to inclement weather, may it happen to me at an airport with a lounge like the one they’ve recently opened in Istanbul.

It’s said to be the most luxurious airport lounge on the planet. Judging from the pictures I’ve seen, the place easily lives up to its billing.

                                                                                All Photos: Turkish Airlines
The lounge occupies two floors at Ataturk Airport – 63,500 square feet total, which makes it bigger than a football field. They can pack about a thousand travelers into this lounge without the fire marshals so much as blinking an eye.

But so as to not give this supersized lounge too cavernous a feel, the architects used stylish colonnades to differentiate some of the space and to visually frame a number of specialty suites.

Diversions aplenty beckon the bored. For example, it's got a slot-car racetrack that stretches across one of the floors and encircles a scale-model of Istanbul (the minature speedway at one point curves past a small replica of the airport's control tower).

Elsewhere are golf simulators, video-game consoles, billiard tables, five-star dining facilities, a traditional Middle Eastern tea garden, massage beds, a book library, just about everything imaginable that would allow a grounded traveler to wait-out a trip delay without going mad.

And wait it out in high style. Turkish Airlines – owner of the lounge – seems to have spared no expense in designing for both elegance and drama (as evidenced by the crystal chandeliers, the sweeping spiral staircase that connects the floors, and the extensive use of posh leather-covered furniture throughout).

The entire lounge is operated for Turkish Airlines by Do & Co., an award-winning, elite catering and travel services outfit noted for such offerings as K.u.K. Hofzuckerbäckerei DEMEL-New York (a Big Apple offshoot of Vienna's oldest confectionery and pastry shop, still baking its cakes in strict adherence to Austrian royal imperial tradition).

(The closest thing we have to Ataturk Airport’s new lounge is the one built a few years back for the airline Emirates at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Do & Co. runs that one too.)

Weitz & Luxenberg has never sent me to Turkey to meet with mesothelioma victims, so it’s unlikely I’ll ever get to experience the Ataturk Airport lounge.

But, in the event the firm ever did put me on a plane to Turkey, I could expect to visit quite a few mesothelioma victims after I arrived. As reported in the Washington Post, some 200 new cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed annually in Turkey.

The Journal of the National Cancer Institute – a British publication – reported nearly a decade ago that mesothelioma incidence is particularly a problem in villages along Turkey’s Anatolian plateau. The reason for it is the presence of asbestos-rich stones. Villagers traditionally use them to build homes and roads. Roughly a quarter of the mesothelioma cases in Turkey come from just three of those asbestos stone-using villages, according to The Post.

My prayers go out to Turkey's mesothelioma victims, and to everyone in that country who has been exposed to asbestos but not yet developed the cancer.

Meanwhile, here I sit, far from Istanbul, stuck in yet another unglamorous, utilitarian domestic airport lounge. The best I can do is wait for the weather to improve and the flights to resume while daydreaming of comfortable surroundings designed with the weary traveler in mind.

Sigh.