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Review by KJ Doughton
Posted 21 April 2000

Directed by Jonathan Mostow

 Starring Matthew McConaughey, 
Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel, 
Jon Bon Jovi, and David Keith.

Written by Jonathan Mostow, 
Sam Montgomery, and David Ayer.

U-571 is an awfully familiar journey through the Atlantic Ocean via submarine, one that we’ve taken before in Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot, Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide, and John McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October.  But during these previous cinematic U-boat outings, there was always something more to hold our attention than rattled Navy crewmembers sweating it out, while their crafts dodged depth charges and fended off torpedoes. Crimson Tide, for instance, had Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington discussing the finer points of stallions and The Silver Surfer, as a nuclear meltdown with Russia loomed closer.  This time around, however, predictable action scenarios are all there is to offer, and a unique angle is missing. What you’re left with is the frustrating spectacle of watching seasoned actors like Harvey Keitel struggle with a wooden script, in the manner of the Nautilus getting smothered by a giant squid’s tentacles.

U-571 is a period piece set in the spring of 1942, a time in which Hitler’s German U-boats had sunken over 1,000 Allied vessels.  To foil the Nazis’ prolific team of submarines, which uses a secret communication system called Enigma code, a squad of U.S. sailors is called upon to capture a disabled German sub.  By capturing the craft’s Enigma transmission machine, the British and American Allies can break this complex code and gain an offshore foothold on such enemy activity.  This scenario is introduced during one of those uniformed officer drink ‘n dance socials that seem to be a mainstay of any military movie.  At the party, we’re introduced to Lt. Tyler (Matthew McConaghey), who’s sore at higher-up Lt. Comdr. Dahlgren for not recommending him as a mission commander.  Like a sluggish torpedo shot from a rusty holding chamber, cliché number one has been deployed: the feisty, ambitious young upstart who must test his mettle under the tides.

Tyler’s chance to prove himself materializes during the sub-seizing mission, in which his squadron plans to disguise an American S-33 U-boat as a German vessel and masquerade as a Nazi rescue team.  Hoping that the enemy will buy their charade, the Naval group can board the disabled craft, snag the coding gear, and make it back to their own sub before the German boat – a U-571 - is blown to smithereens.  The strategy sounds good on paper, but things soon go awry. Considerable suspense is evoked when a raft of the impostors makes its way through darkened waters towards the U-571, preparing to ambush.  A young German-speaking translator nearly freezes up, when he’s called upon to initiate conversation with the gun-toting Nazis egging them onward.  Later, after the Americans have successfully captured the craft, Tyler and Company is alarmed to observe an enemy torpedo slamming into their original submarine. 

Sardine-canned into a foreign craft alongside some unpredictable Nazi POW’s and a faltering engine, the Allied team spends the duration of U-571 improvising to survive. Such adaptability conjures forth memories of Apollo 13’s group of stranded astronauts and their ingenuous ability to patch up each impending crisis before it could blow up in their faces. It’s a good thing that the film focuses on action and strategy, because its characterization and paint-by-numbers structure almost sink this latest onscreen example of grace under pressure.  There’s Lt. Pete Emmett, for instance, played by rock star Jon Bon Jovi.  Is Bon Jovi a good actor?  It’s difficult to tell here, as he’s forced to play a character defined almost entirely by his function as a crewmember. Only Harvey Keitel has anything remotely approaching a full-drawn role, and his by-the-rules sea dog, Chief Klough, is reduced to sputtering lines like, “These Krauts sure know how to build a boat.”  When Tyler must lead the crew after a superior is blown into shark bait, his indecisive banter with the sub-mates is fodder for big cliché number two: the younger officer confronted by a more seasoned sea vet and told to pull himself up by his barnacle-encrusted bootstraps.  “Don’t ever let your crew suspect you don’t have the answers,” barks Klough. “You’re the skipper now.  He always knows what to do!”

With generic banter and characters as stiff as U-571’s steel hull, does the movie work?  In all fairness, there are some hair-raising turns, as when a German destroyer dumps barrel after barrel of lethal depth charges that rattle the sub like bumpers thumping a pinball. To avoid these explosive booby traps, the submarine descends to levels that threatens to implode it into scrap metal, and the film applies the ol’ montage trick of juggling sweaty facial reaction shots with a descending depth gauge reading, as Tyler periodically announces, “We’re down to 200 meters!”  We’ve seen it all before, but the countdown is still a nail-biter. There’s another stressful scene in which a young, frightened crewmember is ordered to swim into a flooded bilge to seal off a pipe leak. The action will allow the required pressure for the critical launching of a torpedo, as an enemy ship rests above, unloading its artillery onto the surfacing sub.

U-571 demonstrates that a submarine movie needs some type of inventive subtext to keep it afloat and engaging.  Crimson Tide had the above mentioned, Quentin Tarantino-scribed dialogue to keep it lively, while Das Boot employed the grizzled, frantic face of Jurgen Prochnow as a harried German U-boat commander. The Hunt for Red October had a complex, original premise and Sean Connery’s charismatic role as a defecting Russian sub-helmer.  U-571, in comparison, comes across as a hollowed-out shell of a movie.  It’s a bland Subway sandwich with ham and mayo only, hold the jalapenos. 

Click here to read Cynthia Fuch's interview with Jonathan Mostow.

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