Phantom is a submarine movie that’s slipped in under the radar, and one that really shouldn’t have done; as it’s loosely based on an extraordinarily interesting series of events that bought us closer to World War III than even the Cuban Missile Crisis, is fleshed out with an undeniably impressive cast, and really deserves to be watched.
Starring as Russian sub-commander Demi, Ed Harris (The Rock) finds himself in charge of an already ageing Soviet sub at the height of the Cold War, and venturing out to sea once more on a mission so secret that not even he knows the plan; a mission only known to the two KGB agents apparently running things from beneath him.
The two KGB agents, and ‘true believers’ in the Soviet cause (the leader of which is played by X-Files’ own David Duchovny), are apparently testing some amazingly top-secret new technology, and force the captain into making a number of maneuvers and decisions he’s less than comfortable with; making it quickly become apparent that all is not what it seems (well, aside from being especially cagey and very wrong), and that the two KGB agents have not only gone rogue, but are taking control of a Soviet submarine, going dark, and planning to ignite World War III by launching an outright attack on the United States.
Things heat up after a few questionable actions and an apparent successful test of the new technology leads to a hostile take over of the sub, the captain and his loyal first-mate (William Fichtner, Black Hawk Down) being taken prisoner, and those loyal to the captain having to not only try and forcibly take back control of their sub, but prevent the coming of the global nuclear apocalypse in the process.
Needless to say Phantom is a very claustrophobic movie (it does all take place on a submarine after all, so that’s more than warranted, and actually helps us empathize with the uneasy feeling of the crew; not hearing from the outside world at all, or really knowing what’s going on in the beginning), and while it’s a tale that’s been seen before, it gains extra depth by including the captain’s hidden dark past, creating a bigger conspiracy than simply launching a blatant attack on the US, and for the scary fact that even though this film is only loosely based on actual events, it is based on truth, and events that are not only still classified today, but events that brought the world the closest it has ever been, to nuclear war.
Ed Harris is perfectly cast as the nearly retired captain forced to take one last voyage out to sea, and is every bit as regal, strong, clever, and proper as a respecting submarine commander should be; he’s shown his skills as playing officials and military types before (just look at The Rock or Enemy At The Gates for two perfect examples) and not only does he not disappoint here, but he makes it easy to see how any crew member would willingly follow him to the end; it’s just a shame that his apparent counter-part David Duchovny never once feels like a worthy adversary for someone of Ed’s calibre.
Duchovny isn’t bad per-say (and it’s great to see him in a proper film and away from his X-Files/Californication garb), he’s just not strong enough, doesn’t seem clever or devious enough to have planned such a mission, and even seems second-rate compared to the strong supporting cast; William Fichtner being not only the prime example (and more than capable of standing up to Ed’s captain in his role as the trusted second), but a supremely underrated actor himself.
Smaller roles are picked up by the likes of Aliens’ Lance Henriksen and Sean Patrick Flannery (The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day), though most are fairly inconsequential, and difficult to flesh out as the truth of the history that lies behind this tale is still shrouded in mystery, known to only those involved, and those who deem the rest of us unfit to know. And it’s that which makes Phantom worth watching; because not only is it peppered with a strong cast (sure it’s made overly American; to the point at which they have to keep reminding us it’s set on a Soviet sub, by specifically saying “we’re going after the Americans”; and the western accents don’t help, but it’d be difficult to deny the acting talent seen here), and never falters in terms of set design and costuming, but it’s the sort of film that takes a nugget of history, uses it to spin an entertaining movie, and then leaves you thinking about the reality; because for hours after watching you’ll be wondering, what really happened on that sub, and simply through the actions of a couple of rogue KGB agents, how close did we really come to experiencing the world’s first nuclear war?