“Inspired by true events” is a bit tricky to place in the opening credits.
Which true events, exactly? The ending credits say that the full information
is classified by both the Russian and American governments. So what we
apparently have here is “a plausible scenario” constructed from very
little evidence and a lot of imagination. Well, for a movie, that’s not so
bad in itself; it’s at least plausible. There’s something about this
dramatic version that feels real. And few actors do gritty better than Ed
The year is 1968. We’re still in The Cold War with Russia, and President
Johnson is talking about the necessity of our involvement in Vietnam to stop
the spread of Communism. Tensions between the U.S.S.R. and the United States
are still high, though China is looming on the horizon like a sleeping giant.
In the U.S.S.R., as in the United States, there was always tension between the
hard-liners and the pacifiers. And a sudden advance in technology can be an
In “Phantom,” Russia scientists have developed a new technology that
exactly replicates the unique sonar signature of any ship. This can be used to
both disguise the signal of the ship utilizing it, and also to replace it with
whatever signal they choose. Thus, a submarine can make itself sound like a
tanker. The significance of this is that a nearby armed nuclear submarine
would be considered a very real threat, whereas a tanker would not (it would
just make a big mess, but couldn’t blow up anyone else).
The hard-liners within the Russian military are convinced that this new
technology is a golden opportunity for them. All they would have to do is take
over one of their own nuclear submarines, use the “phantom” device to make
it sound like a Chinese submarine instead, and fire an armed warhead at the
United States. Then, the U.S. would automatically declare war against China,
and their two greatest rivals for world dominance would systematically destroy
each other, while they, Russia, sit gleefully on the sidelines, waiting to
take over and rule the chaos after the smoke clears. It’s a dastardly plot
that was bound to create unpredictable but significant havoc. All they needed
was a few steely patriots with submarine experience to get themselves assigned
to a sub headed up by a captain who’s perceived to be old and weak and on
his last voyage before retirement.
Enter Ed Harris, as “Demi,” sent by the Russian Navy to take his old sub
out for one last voyage before mothballs, and just before he slinks off into
retirement, after a checkered career in which he presided over a collision
that resulted in loss of life. That gruesome experience still gives him
nightmares. And he drinks while on duty to cope with the guilt. It looks like
the hard-liners have picked themselves a perfect target.
A submarine is the kind of place where you don’t want to be claustrophobic.
Where strange noises are taken very seriously. Where small-arms fire
represents a real and present danger. And where men work in such close
quarters for such long periods that mental stability becomes a significant
David Duchovny, as “Bruni,” the head of the hard-liners, plays it very
straight in this role, as does everyone else. It’s pretty much humorless and
romance-less, too. But it’s a riveting story, well-told, about how, in 1968,
we all might have come much closer to annihilation than we ever knew.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving,