The C.I.A. mission recalled in “Neither Confirm Nor Deny,” Philip Carter’s neat and steadily paced documentary, sounds like the stuff of a Tom Clancy Cold War thriller. In the film, C.I.A. veterans and journalists recount a 1974 U.S. operation to recover a Soviet nuclear submarine that had sunk in the Pacific six years earlier. It’s a high-risk mission made more suspenseful by technical challenges, the looming specter of Watergate and a need for secrecy in the face of scrutiny from Russia and the press.
The story assembles before our eyes like an illustration in a manual for superspies. The goal: obtain valuable nuke data. The tool for the job: a big ship with the ability to snatch the sub and sneak it away to American shores. The cover story: an undersea mining operation fronted by Howard Hughes.
David Sharp, who directed the mission and wrote a book about it, is the most prominently featured of the wonky talking heads here. He relates amazing details — like what the U.S. did with bodies of Soviet sailors that were discovered — in the understated manner of a kind science teacher. The Pulitzer-winning journalist Seymour M. Hersh, who wrote about the operation for The New York Times in the 1970s, offers a salty insider perspective.