U-571 Review

by "Harvey S. Karten" (film_critic AT compuserve DOT com)
April 14th, 2000


Reviewed by Harvey Karten
Universal Pictures
Director: Jonathan Mostow
Writer: Jonathan Mostow (story & screenplay)
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel, Jon Bon Jovi, Jake Weber, Erik Palladino, Matthew Settle, David Keith, Thomas Kretschmann

    My gosh. There's so much tension in the eyes of the fellas in one of the German navy's unterwasserschiffen, so much sweat pouring down foreheads for most of this movie's 118 minutes, that you'd think that these sailors all live in a yellow submarine. The only yellow here is this lemon of a war movie--in most ways a second-rate "Das Boot"--but U-571 sure is an unusual vessel. The U-571 that Lt. Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey), Captain Dahlgren (Bill Paxton), Chief Klough (Harvey Keitel), Lt. Pete Emmett (Jon Bon Jovi), and Lt. Hirsch (Jake Weber) have boarded is not an American craft but one built in Germany to house several Nazi sailors with a modicum of comfort. What makes this U- 571 distinctive, however, is only partly that Americans and not Germans are running it. The boat houses the Enigma, a decoding device that looks like one of those stenotype gadgets which courtroom reporters use, but instead of chronicling events at a trial, this baby is doing so much damage to the Allied forces that the wrong guys are winning the war. At least that's the impression we get from the stalwart officers and their men who have captured a Nazi sub, gunning down the fellas who fight for the Fuhrer, and taking its captain prisoner.

    Not too long into the movie, any discerning observer soon realizes that this is not going to be "Das Boot Zwei." The 1981 movie a.k.a. "The Boat," directed by Wolfgang Petersen and based on the novel by Lothar G. Buchheim is above all a human story. Politics takes a back seat to a drama in which the German characters are so well developed that an American audience cannot help sympathizing with the enemy. The captain of Das Boot does not even like Hitler, and has no problem expressing his disdain for the little German dictator who started the great big war. He and his men just want to survive, so they spend their time talking about their lives back home rather than about Mein Kampf while they sing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary," because that has a bouncier tune than "The Horst Wessel Lied."

    By contrast, while the claustrophobia of submarine life comes across in Jonathan Mostow's movie, the battle scenes are repetitious (how much tension can be generated by depth charges fifteen minutes into the movie, twenty-five, thirty, and so on) but what is most disappointing is that these men have no stories to tell. No, that's not entirely true. One ensign, informed that the 48-hour liberty is cancelled, whines "I didn't even have time to consummate my marriage," though he does not seem all that upset. On board, another enlisted man tells of a foolproof way he gets women to "come across." He talks to them about pressure introduced when a submarine dives below 150 meters. This may not be much of a "line," but we all know that this Casanova is interested only in foreshadowing what his boat is going to do.

    The only theme resembling a human story in "U-571" centers on Lt. Andrew Tyler, who complains to Capt. Dahlgren that he was not given command of a boat. Dahlgren is sympathetic to the hard-working lieutenant but thinks the young man is not ready to assume such a responsibility. In Dahlgren's view, Tyler is too wishy-washy, that the lieutenant feels so close to his men that he may not be willing to give them an order that could result in any loss of life. Predictably enough, Tyler gets his chance to prove his superior officer wrong when Dahlgren is killed in action and Tyler assumes command of the sub.

    "U-571" is a World War II action drama about a U.S. Navy submarine captain on a mission to steal a decoding device from the German sub that houses it, a device that enables the Nazis to communicate positions of Allied shipping on the Atlantic. The contraption must be snatched in a such a way that the Germans are unable to transmit information to their own side lest Germany simply change the code. The most absorbing part of the film occurs when the Captain Dahlgren, shipping out on a fleabag of a sub disguised as a Nazi vessel, sends a party of impersonators out on a raft to board the opposing U-571, taking command after a furious exchange of gunfire only to see his own craft go under. Unfamiliar with the German labels (only one man aboard can read the language), the Yanks do the best that they can, holding their breath as a German plane hovers over them undecided about whether to strafe the Americans or to accept them as Germans.

    After the usual events--a German prisoner breaks free of his chains and threatens the entire project, for example--the new captain is tested. As a German destroyer approaches the U-571, he orders to sub to descend to a position so close to the ocean floor that the pressure could crack it like an egg. He sends a man into a flooded compartment to fix a couple of leaks which, if left unrepaired, would make the U-517 unable to discharge its torpedo against the hovering enemy destroyer. As the German depth charges go off, getting closer and closer as the Americans perspire even more freely, the submarine shakes and rocks, director Mostow capturing the reaction by jiggling the camera.

    "U-571" takes its place in a repertory of submarine dramas including Tony Scott's "Crimson Tide," involving a power play aboard a Navy nuclear submarine; Dick Powell's "The Enemy Below," which even in 1957 had superior special effects; and Robert Wise's "Run Silent Run Deep," pitting Clark Gable against Burt Lancaster as a battle of wills between officers. The conflict between McConaughey's character, Andrew Tyler, and those men who distrust his competence, is a mirror image of its forerunners. Petersen's "Das Boot" stands as the only drama supplying an inspiring combination of human interest and dramatic and varied fighting scenes, including one attack by the boat against a British caravan heading through the straits of Gibraltar. The acting in the current film, however, is merely competent, the dialogue humdrum, the direction without sufficient challenge. Since the radio on the pursuing German destroyer had been demolished by a lucky shot and the Americans are unable to use their own signal for fear of giving away their position, we do get the feel of the vastness of the water as the submarine and the destroyer play out their cat-and-mouse game as though they housed the only human beings on the planet.

    For those who object to the falsification of history, note that the true story is that in 1941 the British Navy's HMS Bulldog snatched the Enigma from a German U-boat, while a Station X in the English countryside performed the decoding. This truer version is described by Robert Harris in his novel, "Enigma."

Rated PG-13. Running time: 118 minutes. (C) 2000 by Harvey Karten, [email protected]

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