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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Your Better Deeds Shall Be in Water Writ
by Donald Levit

Phantom takes off from an asserted real, but USSR-and-US-suppressed, loss of a Soviet submarine and later discovery of an unexploded nuclear missile, and draws a whew! parallel to the brinksmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis of six years earlier. The adventure purports to reveal yet another close approach to Cold War nuclear disaster and to celebrate unsung heroes of humanity, decent Russians here played by Americans.

Indeed, writer-director Todd Robinson does not ask his actors to put on the usual transparently fake accents, nor is any foreign language spoken above English subtitles. These are by implication ordinary men of a then-enemy nation, true, but not in essentials different from us. They are under the command of a man who has visited New York and taken away the impression that the common people of both superpowers are decent, family-oriented and peaceful.

Captain Demi (Ed Harris) brings his dinosaur B67 back to naval base, for at least one wedding in the midst of ninety days’ shore leave after seventy-six at sea. Revered by his officers and men, the captain is tired, set to retire to wife Sophi and their daughter (Dagmara Dominczyk and Tessa Robinson), and haunted by something in the past to be vaguely revealed via epileptic seizure-like visions and then directly thrown in his face. On disembarking, he is informed that his ship is slated to be foisted off on the Chinese after its crew completes one last immediate mission that, for reasons never made clear, the chain of command believes will fail. “Greatness casts a long shadow,” his sympathetic superior (Lance Henriksen, as Markov) laments in reference to Demi’s naval legend of a father who, in the later reasoning of one who hates him, was the sole reason for the son’s rank and ”the hero you always hoped to be but never were.”

Assigned to accompany the regular eighty-seven men are “technicians’ headed by Bruni (David Duchovny) who install abovedecks what is subsequently revealed as the Phantom, a device rendering underwater vessels the appearance of different sizes and tonnage to sonar, thus raising the fleet once again to the superior level of the US’s.

In a conspiracy theory no less plausible than many, these newcomers are not beholden to party, government or armed forces but are KGB agents acting on a rogue plan for limited Armageddon, to orchestrate mutual annihilation among foreign enemies -- and, in a weak side-link, exact a measure of personal revenge,

Of an outmoded diesel type of ballistic submarine being phased out in favor of nuclear ones, the ship is commandeered by Bruni. Loyal Executive Officer Alex (William Fichtner), recent bridegroom Sasha (Jason Gray-Stanford) and other seamen are locked behind bulkheads so that the mutineers can carry out a dissimulated strike against the American Pacific Fleet.

The ninety-seven minutes occur almost entirely inside the submerged submarine, whose interior is cleaner than expected and less claustrophobically sweaty. Underwater effects are poor, while some maritime gobbledygook is uttered for authenticity, and danger comes less from depth charges, torpedoes and crushing water pressure than from poisoning of the air supply when sea water interacts with old-fashioned batteries.

But the story does not in the end sink or swim on warfare or anyone’s U-boats but on the men who man them and the choices that must be made. To paraphrase Conrad, the interests are terrestrial after all.

(Released by RCR Distribution and rated “R” by MPAA.)

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