Who wants to waste time seeing a film that centers on the power of the script as opposed to special effects? Who would dare take time for something intellectually stimulating?
Rating: Can be seen in or out of the theater, and must be seen if you are an Ed Harris fan.
Phantom is a modest little film that succeeds because it doesn’t try to extend itself beyond its reach. It is a political thriller that rediscovers the claustrophobic charm of old submarine films. Far from great, it is absorbing, and it rides on the considerable skill of Ed Harris.
Set in 1968 during the Cold War, it imagines a moment where the world came close to a nuclear war. Mr. Harris is the commander of a Russian submarine taken over by right wing dissidents whose goal is to launch a surprise attack on an American fleet. Nearly the entire movie places you within the confines of a small submarine that remains submerged heading for its destination, and the enjoyment of the film will come from your ability to embrace Mr. Harris and his cohorts.
Obviously, such a tale is not likely to appeal to most of you, and the film will undoubtedly die a quick death at the cinema. However, it did remind me in part of one of my favorite films, On the Beach (1959). Starring Gregory Peck, Fred Astaire and Ava Gardner, it tells the emotionally crushing story of an American submarine docking in Australia following a nuclear holocaust. Fallout from the nuclear blasts has killed all life that it encounters on Earth, and it is slowly drifting towards the last surviving members of the human race.
The story is as enchanting as it is heartbreaking. Lovers are forced to confront their looming deaths. In a scene that is unforgettable, Mr. Peck must take his submarine to sea, leaving his beloved Ms. Gardner staring wistfully from a cliff with the sounds of “Waltzing Matilda” in the background. It almost always brings a tear to my eye whenever I think of that film.
No, Phantom doesn’t rise to that emotional level, but you can’t help but appreciate its intellectual fervor. Though the characters are all Russian, they all speak English without artificial accents. That helps the film immensely, and allows Mr. Harris to wrestle with the end of his lengthy career. He discovers that his reputation is in ruins, and he longs for the wife and daughter that he was suddenly forced to leave with his new assignment.
As I said, the film is nearly confined to interaction on the Russian sub. David Duchovny plays the villain, a Marxist true believer who wants to create the impression that the United States has been attacked by China. Using a device known as “The Phantom” that keeps the submarine from being detected, Duchovny and his cohorts do not betray their narrow role in this film. More importantly, they bring out the best in Mr. Harris as he attempts to save his ship and the reputation of his country.
Quite frankly, it would be unfair to try to spend a great deal of time paying homage to Mr. Harris’ sterling career. One need only note his stunning portrayal of John Glenn in The Right Stuff (1983); his recreation of E. Howard Hunt in Nixon (1995); his golden performance as Jackson Pollock in the film of the same name (2000); his tremendous contribution in the fantastic A History of Violence (2005) and his magnificent role in the cowboy classic Appaloosa (2008). He is an actor of considerable talents and enormous range.
In a sense, Phantom is comparable to this year’s Killing Them Softly and Stand Up Guys. Likely to be quickly swept away as they were, its strength comes more from what you hear as opposed to what you see.
Additionally, the plot is really a reverse version of the classic Dr. Strangelove (1964). There you had a lunatic General Ripper who was trying to secretly launch a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Here, you have a rogue Russian agency trying to do the same thing to the United States.
While it is nowhere near as diabolically funny as Dr. Strangelove, it is a reminder of how close the world came to nuclear destruction during the years following the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. As noted, this is not an action film, but rather a battle of thoughts, commitments and honor. Not a bad way to go down with the ship.