Thursday, March 05, 2015

"Phantom": A Soviet submarine commander, in 1968, is set up by the KGB to start WWIII

Phantom” (2013), directed and written by Todd Robinson, may be an average “closed-space” thriller, mostly inside a the man-made pressure of a submarine, but it refers to a serious Cold War incident that I recall in connection with my own Army service.
The prologue for the film says that we were within yards of nuclear annihilation in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, but we came within inches in 1968, literally while I was in Army Basic Training having been drafted (or maybe slightly before).  Robinson says he is a product of the Cold War and thinks that the public is complacent about Communism and post-communist statism today.  This is, in some respect, a film for conservatives.
Another aspect of the film is that the story is told from the “enemy’s” point of view (like “Generation War” on this blog, March 15, 2014). 
The dramatic setup is that Demi (Ed Harris), a has-been Russian sub commander, has been tasked to one more last command.  He seems to have medical issues, with epileptic fits and possible schizophrenic visions, so his selection seems unlikely, and perhaps, in retrospect, suspicious.  Once on board, the sub is taken over by a rogue KGB agent Bruni (David Duchovny, from “X-Files”, himself with some Ukrainian and Russian ancestry, which seems ironic now).  Bruni eventually reveals that the plan is to disguise the ship as a civilian vessel with a “phantom” acoustic signature (maybe confusing whales as well), and then trick the US into believing that the vessel is Chinese, and provoke a war between the US and China.  The idea is that the US and China destroy each other, and leave the Soviet Union to rule the remaining world.  Then the screenwriting has to make a “rooting interest” out of Demi’s ability to get Tyrtov (Sean Patrick Flanery) and Sasha (Jason Gray-Stanford) to outwit the KGB.
The ending will be tragic, with the sub lost, and there is a kind of “remote viewing” (in the sense of the Monroe Institute) of Demi’s family at the end, to show the real stakes of war.
There’s a critical line where Demi comments on mutiny (it might have come from Britten’s “Billy Budd”): it has one of two opposing purposes:  defection, or starting a world war.
The DVD has two extra shorts, “Facing the Apocalypse” (about the making of “Phantom”) and “The Real Phantom”, where Robinson discusses the real K-129 case (Wiki ).   Robinson also explains Eisenhower’s previous “First Strike” policy, which could have made the Soviets want to start a war pre-emptively, both in 1962 and again in 1968.

Robinson mentions that a war could have made Hawaii uninhabitable permanently, and that this reallyt almost happened.  He (or the film) also mentions the idea of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), which any of the major powers could have generated over an enemy territory, disabling electronics for hundreds of miles. 

I believe that I had heard about this whole issue when I was in the Army, both at my time at the Pentagon in 1968, and then later among some other guys in the barracks at Fort Eustis, VA in late 1968 and 1969, in one specific occasion, shortly before the Nixon election. No one took for granted the idea that China and the Soviet Union would remain enemies of one another as well as of the US.  At the time, I recalled “The War Game” (Peter Watkins), the aftermath of a simulated nuclear attack on a town in Britain.  The film supposes that the US war in Vietnam has drawn in the Chinese and finally the Soviets into a confrontation.  China would finally admit (in the late 1980s) that it has sent its own troops into the Vietnam war (typical article in Desert News here) .
Of course, this gets into the whole Domino Theory, which drove the thinking of Johnson and McNamara and later Nixon (“peace with honor”), all of it unraveling with the 1975 collapse in Saigon and later Pol Pot’s Cambodian terrors (“The Killing Fields”).  But I always had the impression (most of all when I was at the Pentagon as a “mathematician” until failing to get my top secret clearance – a whole narrative of its own) that the willingness to endure a male military draft and keep troops on patrol in areas threatened by communism (following the example of Korea) was itself a way to stay away from the nuclear brink.

It's worth noting here also a PBS film about a Soviet submarine commander during the Cuban Missile Crisis, "The Man Who Saved the World", reviewed on the TV Blog, Oct. 23, 2012.  Another relevant film is "K-19: The Widowmaker" (2002) by Kathryn Bigelow, with Harrison Ford, set in 1961 (Paramount).  

The ("Phantom") film has an important song, “An Ocean Away”, sung by Rachel Fanan, music by Jeff Rona.

The original film was released by RCR (I wonder if it showed at the AMC Hoffman Center in Alexandria) and went to DVD, from Fox Home Entertainment, site here. Is Fox living up to being “conservative”? The film can be rented on YouTube for $2.99, 

Picture: Inside a WWII submarine at Baltimore Harbor, my picture, 2009.  I also boarded the Sunfish (1963) on a visit to Norfolk in 1993. 

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