“Phantom” is a slow, awkward, unrewarding Cold War drama that claims to be based by actual events but relies almost entirely on conjecture, wild rumor, and utter fantasy. Both the setting and the focus of the plot is the “K-129” Soviet submarine, which sank mysteriously in the Pacific Ocean on March 8, 1968. The wreck would remain undiscovered until 1974, when the United States attempted to raise it as part of a covert operation known as Project Azorian. To this day, specifics regarding its sinking remain unknown, and the U.S. has kept all files, photographs, and videotaped evidence closed to the public. Even its exact location in the Pacific continues to be an official secret, although the claims of several sources strongly suggest the wreck site to be around 600 nautical miles north of the Midway Atoll.
The inspiration for the plot, not mentioned in either the closing credits or the film’s IMDb webpage, is Kenneth Sewell’s 2005 book “Red Star Rogue – The Untold Story of a Soviet Submarine’s Nuclear Strike Attempt on the U.S.” According to Sewell, the crew of the “K-129” took part in a rogue Soviet operation (which involved the KGB) to mimic a Chinese submarine, launch a ballistic missile at Pearl Harbor, and ultimately ignite a war between the U.S. and China. He goes on to say that the “K-129” sank as the result of one of its three missiles exploding while it was being prepped for launch. Sewell has never been able to support his claims with any real evidence, and many official sources have been able to undermine his position. From my layman’s perspective, it sounds like nothing more than a half-baked conspiracy theory.
Some may take issue with the fact that Russian characters are played by an almost entirely American cast, and that English is spoken all throughout the film. Not just English, but heavily colloquial English – the kind of English that only Americans are likely to understand. To the best of my recollection, no one even attempts to fake an accent. I might have overlooked this approach if writer/director Todd Robinson had at the very least established his characters’ Russian origins at the start of the film, and then found a creative way to have the language transition to English. Consider “The Hunt for Red October,” which began with characters speaking Russian, or “Valkyrie,” which began in German; in both cases, audiences were made aware of the point at which the language shifted to English, which made suspension of disbelief possible.