“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 Harris.
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 Soviet Union and the United States are still high, although 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 instant game-changer.
In “Phantom,” Soviet 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 using it, and also to replace it with any other signal desired by those using this technology. 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 massive havoc. All the hard-liners 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 issue.
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.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.