Sunday 2 February 2020

Movie Review: U-571 (2000)

A World War Two submarine action film, U-571 offers combat thrills in tight quarters but with limited character depth.

With German U-boats dominating the North Atlantic, U-571 sinks an Allied merchant ship but is then itself damaged by depth charges. The US Navy quickly conceives of a ruse to disguise the submarine S-33 as a German rescue vessel, storm the U-571, and seize the Enigma cipher machine and its valuable code books.

Captain Mike Dahlgren (Bill Paxton) commands S-33, with Lieutenant Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey) as his Executive Officer. The respect between the two men is undermined by some tension as Dahlgren does not believe Tyler is yet ready to command his own vessel and make life-or-death decisions in the heat of battle.

Joining them for this mission are Major Matthew Coonan (David Keith) and Lieutenant Michael Hirsch (Jake Weber). The crew members include Chief Gunner's Mate Henry Klough (Harvey Keitel) and Seaman Bill Wentz (Jack Noseworthy), who is half German. In rough seas the U-571 is captured, but enemy action throws the mission into disarray and Tyler finds himself unexpectedly in command and under extreme pressure to salvage a desperate situation.

The Allied attempts to capture and decipher Enigma resulted in many heroic missions, most of them completed by British naval forces. Here Hollywood takes over with a crass Americanization of history, the US Navy crew and commanders of S-33 portrayed as instrumental in the intelligence gathering war.

Setting aside the snub, U-571 is a decent thriller within the typical limitations of a De Laurentiis production. Any half-hearted interest in people starts and ends in the first 10 minutes with Tyler's nose bent out of shape as a result of not receiving the commission he was hoping for. Once the S-33 mission gets underway the movie is all about hardware, torpedoes, depth charges and the typical thrills, spills, leaks, explosions, solar pings and stealthy combat expected from the submarine warfare sub-genre.

Director Jonathan Mostow co-wrote the screenplay (with David Ayer and Sam Montgomery), and delivers a taut if always-slightly-implausible two hours. The special effects and claustrophobic submarine cinematography convey the tension of enemy confrontations on the surface and underwater. The surprises arrive on cue, a few good men die, and heroics combine with out-of-the-box thinking as crews and machines are pushed to the limit, men sweating outwards in direct proportion to submarines leaking inwards.

The German submarine crew do receive several sequences at the center of the action and speak their own language, but are otherwise strictly confined to heartless enemy characterizations. Matthew McConaughey wears a grim and stony faced expression throughout, and the supporting cast members dutifully follow suit, including rock star Jon Bon Jovi stumbling into an acting gig.

U-571 reimagines history and celebrates machines more than people, but does it all with an admirably straight face.

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