All Hands on Deck, by David Bax
Do you like submarine movies? Do you like the part where the crew boards the ship for departure in the dark hours of the morning? Or the part where sweaty men whisper urgently in a claustrophobic corridor? Or the part where everyone is quietly and intensely listening to the creak of the hull as the boat falls into the high-pressure deep? If you rolled your eyes at any of the above hallmarks of the submarine sub-genre, Todd Robinson’s Phantom is probably not for you. However, if you eagerly consumed everything from Das Boot to K-19: The Widowmaker (as I have), Phantom hits all of the above familiar notes and more but does them with a satisfying and unpretentious competence.
It’s 1968 and a nearly retired submarine captain (Ed Harris) is called into the office of his superior (Lance Henriksen) and told that, despite only enjoying three weeks’ leave, he and his crew, led by the Chief of the Boat (William Fichtner), will be returning to the ocean aboard the same vessel that Harris captained as a younger man. They won’t know the nature of their mission until they are well at sea but there are two KGB operatives on board (David Duchovny and Sean Patrick Flanery) and their security clearance is higher than the captain’s. Once the motives of the KGB agents – and the purpose of the mysterious device called the “phantom” – become clear, the crew must decide where their loyalties and morals lie.
There’s a lot of history between Harris and the other characters. He seems to have sticky pasts with Henriksen, Fichtner and Duchovny; also his father was a decorated World War II hero who is an inspiration to many of his men. It’s a lot to wade through but never fear: the characters vocally detail at length everything about Harris’s past. There’s dialogue here that’s so brazenly expositional, calling it clunky wouldn’t suffice. It’s more of a thud than a clunk but you almost have to respect its honest practicality.
As already mentioned, the film is thick with recognizable tropes of the genre. Like a lot of recent submarine fiction (K-19, Crimson Tide, TV’s Last Resort), much of the conflict comes from disagreement among the crew about the interpretation of orders and the chain of command. Additionally, there’s the intrigue of chasing and being chased by other boats you can’t see and the suspense of knowing there are missiles in the water that could connect devastatingly if precise maneuvers are not executed.
One added element is unfortunately abandoned by Robinson early on. Harris is haunted by his past and, in the first half or so of the film, that fact manifests as a literal haunting. The creepy images and jump scares imported from the horror genre lend a bit of unpredictable fun that disappears the more we learn about the specifics of Harris’s early days as a captain. Though that approach makes logical sense, it’s too bad when those sequences recede.
On paper (and often on film), Phantom is in need of a rewrite. The story is there but someone with a gentler hand at dialogue could have improved it considerably. Yet the unsubtle fact of the words is often overpowered by the strength of the performers. Harris, Henriksen, Fichtner, Duchovny and Flanery – as well as Johnathan Schaech in the role of the political liaison officer – are no slouches. Their commitment to the roles and to finding distinct depths in each of them is compelling and at times lends the awkwardly straightforward speeches a Mametian feel.
In any case, eloquence is not really the point of these movies. They are exercises in morality wherein the characters have been isolated from the world but thrown into impossibly close quarters with one another. Since survival in a submerged vessel is potentially a zero/sum game, the stakes are dramatically heightened. Therefore, there’s not a lot of room – literal or psychological – for the characters to squirm away from facing themselves, what they believe and what they’re willing to do about it. When the duty one has pledged comes into conflict with the natural duty to one’s fellow human beings, which one wins out? It’s a simple question we’ve seen played out on screen countless times and I, for one, can never get enough of it.
With its head-smackingly obvious dialogue and plot turns that a child would see coming, Phantom is a B movie with a capital B. Its smart and confident execution makes that a very good thing.
My favourite part of submarine movies has always been the rousing pre-departure speech from the captain in the pouring rain, as welding sparks fall from the submarine behind him.