On the heels of a year in which an amazing number of movies portrayed American military, intelligence and political processes without an ounce of cynicism, where can a filmmaker turn for refreshed inspiration?
Russia, of course!
“Phantom,” Todd Robinson’s intriguing, if uneven, thriller, dusts off an obscure chapter in Cold War-era brinkmanship, made all the more piquant by the fact that the participants, in this case, were compatriots. The action begins in 1968, when a Soviet submarine captain named Demi (Ed Harris), who’s about to retire, receives one last commission — on a wheezing, clanking rust bucket that still runs on diesel fuel at the dawn of the all-nuclear age. Along with his executive officer, Alex (William Fichtner), Demi welcomes a few new crew members to their cramped quarters and the enigmatic mission. The crew includes a strangely watchful technician named Bruni (David Duchovny), who seems to know Demi from somewhere.
That mystery, along with Demi’s haunted past and the growing sense that he has been sent on a ghost mission, gives “Phantom” a compelling frisson, made even more palpable as the true nature of the sub’s maneuvers comes to light. Filmed in a real-life Russian submarine docked in San Diego, the movie possesses a cramped, humid sense of verisimilitude, giving viewers vicarious claustrophobia as the vessel plunges down, down, down.
That admirable air of realism dissipates once Robinson takes viewers outside the sub, where torpedo skirmishes are staged with too-perfect CGI bombast. The filmmaker’s decision to dispense with Russian accents effectively removes the kind of mannered affectation that too often plagues similar projects, but that choice is virtually canceled out by wince-inducing passages of cornball dialogue, incomprehensible techno-speak and stagey, theatrical pacing.
Still, Harris lends volumes of mournful Slavic expressiveness to Demi, whose major pivot point occurs amid a shattering moment of self-awareness. His chemistry with Fichtner — given a welcome second-lead role here — feels spontaneous, instinctive and, in the film’s magical realist final moments, genuinely loving.
“Phantom” isn’t a cinematic masterpiece, but it tells an utterly fascinating story that turns America-first patriotism on its head. For a generation raised on Cold War paranoia, it will take some adjusting to root for the bad guy, who, in the course of faithfully serving a country not our own, just might have saved the world.
R. At area theaters. Contains violence. 97 minutes.