movie review by
Elizabeth Abele


(© 2000 Universal Studios. All rights reserved.)

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Much of the buzz about U-571 has centered around its accuracy. Detractors have attacked the film as historically inaccurate, obscuring the story of the British sailors who captured the first Enigma machine--the encoding apparatus that the Nazis used to send messages during World War II. Its supporters have praised how successfully U-571 captures the details of life aboard a diesel submarine.

Screenwriter/director Jonathan Mostow has explained that it was never his intention to dramatize the historic events surrounding the capture of the Enigma machine. Mostow became fascinated with World War II diesel submarines--the ancestor of the more efficient and cleaner nuclear submarines--and thought that the Enigma machine provided the perfect McGuffin for his depiction of the conditions of life aboard these smaller, more fragile and leakier boats. (Anyone who has any curiosity about this older technology, should visit the movie’s Web site.) His screenplay draws on a number of historical events to create a fictional story at sea.

The film opens with a U-Boat and its crew, working and speaking together in subtitled German, just barely surviving an American attack. Crippled, the German crew must wait for a rescuing crew to arrive with mechanics. This U-Boat becomes the Allied’s opportunity to capture an Enigma machine.

The U.S. sailors are introduced during social gaiety of a naval wedding, before moving to the dark and isolated world of a submarine in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, in hostile waters. At this wedding, the underlying moral question of the film is introduced. Lt. Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey) has been passed over for advancement because his captain Lt. Commander Mike Dahlgren (Bill Paxton) believes Tyler cares for his men too much to knowingly put their lives on the line. This was a question that haunted Tom Hanks’s captain in Saving Private Ryan, the sacrifice of men that you know for a multiple of men that you don’t. While the mission of Saving Private Ryan did not seem to warrant the deaths of his unit, Dahlgren and Tyler are presented with a mission--the capturing of an Enigma machine--that is presented as a lynch pin to the entire war.

This particular mission is being driven by Lt. Hirsch (Jake Weber, Meet Joe Black) and Marine Major Coonan (David Keith). Dahlgren’s S-33, a vintage U.S. WWI submarine, has been outfitted to resemble a U-Boat; his crew will masquerade as the rescuing German sailors to gain admission to the crippled U-Boat. Key to this effort is radioman Wentz (Jake Noseworthy), a first-generation German-American. Hirsch baits Wentz in German, until he finally admits his fluency in the language. "Don’t tell the other guys that I’m half-German," he begs Tyler. When Tyler objects that his men are sailors, not marines, and not prepared for the hand-to-hand combat that the mission requires, Hirsch replies that neither are the German seamen.

This film interestingly brings up these cross-cultural questions, but unfortunately drops them once the drama of the film comes up. Where World War II films that focus on the land war can’t escape the horrors of Nazism, the death camps and the brutality, at sea the enemy can simply be Germans, facing the same trials and conditions of their American counterparts. With the fluency of Hirsch and Wentz--which is revealed to his shipmates during the boarding--there is an opportunity for real exchanges to occur between the American crew and their German prisonors, and between "Americans" and "German-Americans." The cook Eddie (T.C. Carson, Living Single) is a seaman overlooked and undervalued because of his race, who predictably proves his true worth in action.

But the cross-cultural moves implied by the crew’s transfer from a disguised S-boat to an actual U-boat is another McGuffin. Mostow’s real intention is to create an emotional atmosphere, that combines the claustrophobia, danger, and discomfort, of a malfunctioning, leaky submarine being depth-charged by a German destroyer. As in his previous film, Breakdown, paranoia and suspense take precedence over character development.

Most big-screen submarine movies portray nuclear submarines instead of diesel subs. Nuclear submarines were built to remain submerged for months at a time, while diesel submarines were actually surface ships that could submerge occasionally. To evade the destroyer, the Americans must keep the U-boat submerged, taking it to lower depths than it is meant to withstand. With their torpedo capacities compromised, the U-boat cannot fire on the destroyer, so it must endure the continual explosion of depth-charges for a longer period than previously portrayed in a film.

The ocean becomes a major character of this film, violently crashing at the surface. spilling in from every joint of the U-boat, and threatening to smash the hull as the ship moves to lower depths. Visual effects supervisor Peter Donen (U.S. Marshalls) and special effects supervisor Allen Hall (Forrest Gump) have done amazing work in recreating the force of the sea and in portraying the domino-like effects of explosions in the ocean. The realistic depiction of the submarines owes much to the work of production designers Gotz Weidner (Das Boot) and William Ladd Skinner (On Deadly Ground).

The cast is largely window-dressing for this atmospheric, suspenseful drama. Half of the major cast members are killed off in a sudden explosion–leaving you to wonder for a while who made it and who didn’t. The surviving officers are too busy shouting orders to fully emerge as characters, though McConaughey’s charisma does manage to convey the maturing of Tyler into a commander. The remaining crew is made up of Anglo young men, of such similar age, size, and hair color that it is a challenge to distinguish between them.

Though I may regret what Mostow did not accomplish with his cast, I must admire the gripping sea yarn that he and his crew have created.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]