U-571 (2000)

D: Jonathan Mostow
S: Matthew McConaughey, Harvey Keitel

First of all, I suppose it is only fair to note that the subject matter of U-571 is highly fanciful. This is not exactly a fact-based historical drama, though it is inspired by many true stories of courage and endurance which came out of the Second World War. Just as Saving Private Ryan was inspired by the true story of the Sullivans and The Thin Red Line was set during the real battle of Guadalcanal, U-571 takes its inspiration from the real-life struggle to break the all-important Enigma code used by German U-Boats to communicate information about Allied ship movements during the Atlantic war. The fact that the Enigma machine was in fact captured by British soldiers is more or less irrelevant here though. What we have is an old-fashioned Wartime action drama which bends the truth to celebrate the heroism of 'Allied' troops during the war. Curiously, many scenes and shots from the film are almost directly copied from Wolfgang Petersen's breakthrough drama Das Boot, which told the true story of a German U-Boat and its crew during what turned out to be, for them, a failed struggle in which their heroism was not celebrated. In the hands of writer/director Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown), the reversal becomes a fairly typically jingoistic but nonetheless entertaining tribute to what the trailer calls "the last great war" and those who fought in it. While it is no doubt true that veterans of that conflict deserve to be remembered and that there were operations of this type carried out by American sailors at this time, the film derives its 'big picture' scenario from a creative use of fact which one hopes younger viewers will not mistake for documentary and its moral centre from little more than propaganda (like the disturbingly simplistic resolution of Rules of Engagement).

Of course it would be difficult to think of this film as a documentary. Mostow has already proved a steady hand at the helm of a gripping action thriller with Breakdown. The human and natural landscape is quite different this time, but the action is just as intense. It is also a lot more elaborate, and from its opening scenes, U-571 is a great button-pusher. Taking his cue from Petersen, Mostow and cinematographer Oliver Wood make great use of enclosed spaces and tight shots of human faces to enhance the tension and the drama. This is punctuated with bursts of violent action, with plenty of high pressure leaks and underwater explosions to keep the audience in a happy daze. The underwater action relies as heavily on sound as image, particularly in the depth charge scenes (in Das Boot one was earth-shattering enough: Mostow stages at least four), and the film is an immersive experience which, if not quite on the scale of Petersen's later The Perfect Storm (which beat it to Irish screens), is certainly fun on a popcorn-munching level.

The dramatic side is less sure-footed. The script, co-written by Mostow and Breakdown collaborator Sam Montgomery with the additional support of David Ayer, fails to avoid jingoistic clichés when it comes to portraying the struggles of executive officer Matthew McConaughey (EDtv, Contact) to rise to the responsibilities of command when the mission to retrieve the Enigma coding machine proves only a partial success. He and his team of ersatz commandos find themselves stranded on the German submarine they have invaded, and must make their way to friendly waters while trying to read German and evade an enemy destroyer. McConaughey is denied a promotion to captain because of commanding officer Bill Paxton's suspicion that he lacks the conviction to truly drive his men and sacrifice them if necessary. The film is mostly about his learning to do that while trying to survive the attentions of the destroyer overhead. If there are shades of The Enemy Below here, they are pale ones, as despite an initial attempt to characterise the German crew as sailors equally devoted to doing their duty in a difficult situation, the moral imperative of the Allied raiders is reinforced with some pointless and extraneous demonstrations of Aryan nastiness which weaken it. Even Saving Private Ryan managed to paint its heroes and villains in less extreme colours, and no real attempt is made here to see more than one angle on the story.

Most viewers will not mind this of course, because while it runs, U-571 is very entertaining. Its historical basis is suspect, its dramatic and thematic centre is hogwash, but it is a very well crafted and technically on par action yarn which will play well with general audiences. The performances are believable in context even if the story tends to cliche, and fans of McConaughey and Harvey Keitel will probably enjoy them here. The supporting cast is also good, including David Keith, Jake Weber, Dave Power, and Jack Noseworthy (also seen in Breakdown), though a macho Italian-American played by Erik Palladino grates on the nerves. Jon Bon Jovi also turns up in the cast, which may or may not be of interest to you. The film does blow an opportunity to salvage its resolution with a moment of ambiguity (watch for the penultimate scene and see if that is not where it should have ended rather than thirty seconds later), and on the whole, it is not as sneakily effective as Breakdown. Mostow is nonetheless certainly proving his ability to put together a satisfying B-movie type package which will keep the punters happy, and U-571 is likely to be as much of an inspiration to continue making WWII films as its weightier recent predecessors.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.