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The middle of summer is when the surprises in publishing turn up. I'm talking about those quietly commanding books that publishers tend to put out now, because fall and winter are focused on big books by established authors. Which brings us to The Dream Life of Astronauts, by Patrick Ryan, a very funny and touching collection of nine short stories that take place in the 1960s and '70s around Cape Canaveral, Fla.

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Soviet Ghosts Resurface In Soggy 'Phantom'

Feb 28, 2013

Explosions rattle the crew. The air is turning fetid. And the captain has ordered a descent toward "crush depth." Yet everything is on course in Phantom, the newest model of the old submarine-from-hell picture.

But the predictability of writer-director Todd Robinson's film is, well, predictable. There are only so many things that can happen in the close quarters of an imperiled sub. What Robinson purports to do is show those familiar undersea events from a different vantage point. All the characters in Phantom serve in the Soviet navy of the 1960s.

The USSR angle, alas, is where the movie really disappoints. An opening title claims that the story was "inspired by actual events," but it actually riffs on a lone factoid: the 1968 disappearance of K-129, whose fate was the partial inspiration for such fictions as 1990's The Hunt for Red October.

How and why that craft sank remains classified, so Robinson's script is entirely speculation. His version of what might have occurred is as banal as the movie's hammy performances and clunky expository dialogue. Phantom offers no more plausible a vision of the doomed K-129 than A Good Day to Die Hard does of post-meltdown Chernobyl.

In this geopolitical fantasy, the aging sub is piloted by Demi (Ed Harris), a captain with good connections but a bad blotch on his record. He and much of his crew, including loyal first officer Alex (William Fichtner), just finished another mission on a more modern sub.

They're quickly pulled from shore leave — and, in one sailor's case, a new bride — and sent back underwater with some enigmatic new mates. The outsiders, led by Bruni (David Duchovny), are supposedly testing a new cloaking device dubbed "phantom." But Demi and Alex suspect the men are KGB hardliners with an ulterior and malevolent motive.

The schemes and motivations trickle in slowly, like seawater through an overstressed hatch. Let's just say that the fanatical Bruni and his like-minded cohorts want to stage an incident that could lead to World War III. Their goal is underlined by a score that's heavy on end-of-the-world throbs but accented by what just have to be balalaikas.

Harris looks suitably haggard as the captain, who drinks heavily to control flashbacks and hallucinations resulting from a previous injury. (Maybe it works for him, but not for the audience, which is subjected to a barrage of shock cuts.) Fichtner keeps his tight-lipped dignity, even during his character's preposterous closing gambit. As for Duchovny, he's unpersuasive in a part no actor could have made convincing.

There are no Yankees aboard this rusty sub, but the Soviets can't stop talking about them. Indeed, Phantom turns on competing visions of the American worldview: Bruni asserts that the U.S. military will attempt to destroy the USSR whenever it gets the chance, while Demi — who's been to New York with his dancer wife — responds that the life-loving Yanks will try to do the right thing.

Maybe some of the time. It was, after all, an American crew that made this soggy flick.

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