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Case Number 06541: Small Claims Court

Sea Spies: Secrets Beneath The Waves

Wellspring Media // 2004 // 50 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Maurice Cobbs (Retired) // April 7th, 2005

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All Rise...

Judge Maurice Cobbs discovers that things are much better down where it's wetter. (That sounds a lot dirtier than he intended.)

The Charge

The undersea world is an unseen battleground.

The Case

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Empire is of course associated with shadowy espionage and intrigue—but I'll bet you had no idea how much of it was being played out beneath the sea. Did you realize, for instance, that we could listen to an undersea explosion off the coast of Australia—as far away as the Bahamas? Sea Spies is an exploration of the stealthy game of cat and mouse between superpowers that took place at the bottom of the sea.

Dr. Robert Ballard, a former U.S. naval intelligence officer who is best known as the discoverer of the wreck of the RMS Titanic, uses animated recreations and archival footage to examine undersea espionage in the post–World War II world. The cover of the DVD and the description on the back seem to imply that the focus of the disc is the history of Cold War nuclear subs, but the centerpiece of Dr. Ballard's showcase is the recently declassified SOSUS (SOund SUrveillance System), an amazingly successful long-range underwater detection system that was instrumental in thwarting Soviet submarines during the Cuban missile crisis. Dr. Ballard also examines the technology that allowed cold-war subs to run silent and run deep, without giving themselves away to the enemy, and calls upon former sub captains from England and Russia and marine and naval experts to offer insight and expertise.

It's a well-put-together documentary, just long enough to be informative and in-depth, but not so long that it becomes boring. Ballard is an engaging and patient lecturer, taking plenty of time to explain the concepts behind the technology as well as its impact on world affairs. It would have been nice if the cover copy explained more clearly what the DVD is about, and it could, in fact, be construed as misleading—although the technology behind Cold War subs is indeed examined, the subject is covered only briefly and only in relation to SOSUS. It feels like a bit of a bait-and-switch, and an unnecessary one—SOSUS is interesting enough to capture interest without subtle trickery.

Most documentary DVDs of this sort would be content to be bare-bones releases, but Sea Spies shoots for the gold, offering an extra hour of very nice extras. First up is a vintage submarine training film that instructs sailors on how to minimize noises that could expose the sub to enemy detection or attack. It's pretty old, with every visual flaw and audio glitch imaginable—think of those strange educational filmstrips you had to watch in junior high, with the scratches and warbly sound, and you'll get the idea. But rather than detracting from the experience, the glitches actually add to it. Go figure.

The longest of the extra features is the Department of Defense Film on Communism—an in-depth explanation (complete with flowcharts!) that shows how Communists worm their way into every level of a particular government, eventually taking it over. The fresh-faced and very serious narrator explains each step in labored detail to ensure that each point is clearly understood—heck, he had me convinced. I mean, I already knew that Communism was probably the worst idea ever, second only to reality TV and those singing fish that were all the rage a couple of years ago, but this feature was still rather creepy. Again, it reminded me of one of those high school health films that warn you against VD or something. I felt like spraying the house for Commies after it was over, or scrubbing it down with Commie Cleanser (to eliminate annoying Red and Pinko stains).

Rounding out the special features are two vintage newsreels; the absurdly short first clip is of the launching ceremony of the USS Thresher—naval buffs may remember the disaster that defined the short service of that now-infamous nuclear submarine. The second clip deals with the heightened tension during the Cuban missile crisis. These newsreels are nice bits of fluff, but they're really too short to offer any additional insight, and only connect to the main feature peripherally. Still, it's more than some other documentaries would have offered.

All in all, this is a nice package nicely put together, informative and entertaining. Don't know what to get that Tom Clancy fan in your life for their birthday? Give Sea Spies a chance.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 89

Perp Profile

Studio: Wellspring Media
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
• None
Running Time: 50 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary

Distinguishing Marks

• Submarine Noise Reduction Training Film
• Department of Defense Film on Communism
• Newsreel: Launch of the USS Thresher
• Newsreel: The Cuban Crisis


• Wikipedia Entry for SOSUS

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