This time of year, the odd hiatus that occurs somewhere in between the competing distractions of the holidays, the Oscars, and the anticipation of the new spring crop, often serves as Hollywood's dumping ground. It's the place on the calendar where films that have languished on the shelf for one reason or another, films without studio support — or in the case of "Phantom," films without an inch of advertising or a note of hype — open at your local multiplex. Sometimes those flicks actually prove more satisfying than the heavily publicized biggies.
"Phantom" seems an odd throwback of a movie, linked with some moments and some pictures from the past. To begin with it's a submarine movie, a minor genre that never quite disappears, and that includes such memorable films as "Silent Running," "The Hunt for Red October," and "Das Boot." The form provides a most propitious setting for Hollywood filmmakers. The limited space crammed with fascinating machinery creates some compelling visual possibilities; the simple fact of submersion in hundreds of feet of ocean makes for a constant tension; the sheer claustrophobia intensifies all other emotions; the reminders of danger in the sweating crew and the pinging of the sonar, and the dialectic of both hunting and eluding enemy vessels convince even the most skeptical audiences of the inherent, unending terror of undersea warfare.
The movie also looks back to a different time, 1968, the Cold War, when Soviet and American submarines, armed with nuclear devices, patrolled the oceans, stalking each other and threatening global destruction. Inspired, as the credits state, by a true story, "Phantom" shows the last cruise of an obsolete, diesel-powered Russian submarine, about to be retired, under a captain (Ed Harris) also about to be retired, sent on a secret mission to the South Pacific.
Puzzled by his orders, Harris learns that most of his crew of replacements consists of sailors with no records, and that he must work under the supervision of an arrogant KGB agent (David Duchovny), who issues orders that imperil the ship and the crew. They sail too close beneath a tanker, stalk another Russian submarine, and head toward the American fleet. The phantom of the title is a device that masks the profile of the sub for detection, sending out the sonar signal of another ship.
When Duchovny reveals the goal of the secret mission, the captain reacts in shock — the KGB plans for the sub to fire a nuclear missile under the guise of a Chinese launch, so that the Americans will retaliate and the two nations will engage in total war. The Soviet Union, he believes, will sit contentedly on the sidelines while their enemies destroy each other, emerging to rule the world. Assisted by the replacement crew and the political officer — always the most powerful member of any Soviet military unit — he takes over the sub and prepares to create World War III.
Along with the multiple sources of tension, the movie exploits the captain's emotional condition, a complicated mixture of sorrow, regret, and mental and physical exhaustion. He keeps remembering, through flashbacks and even hallucinations, a tragic accident from the past, a collision with another ship that killed a number of his crew and in effect doomed his career. The combination of his sense of duty, his guilt, and his horror at Duchovny's plan, written on Ed Harris's weary, lined, expressive face, epitomizes the movie's central dilemma.
While Harris and William Fichtner, who plays his executive officer, perform competently, David Duchovny as the brutal KGB agent turns in a most disappointing job. His offhand delivery and constant deadpan hardly suit the person he plays and the actions he takes; he works best in lighter roles and actually lacks the presence needed for the big screen.
The movie never lets up its pacing, using the mission's mystery as only one of the sources of suspense. Its shots of the several obvious, even necessary moments — the Russian submarine base, the visuals outside the submerged vessel, and of course, the crowded, claustrophobic interior — all look entirely authentic. Whether true or not, it also suggests that Soviet subs stocked a great many small arms and, surprisingly, a lot of liquor.