Sunday, February 5, 2017

U-571 (2000)

Director: Jonathan Mostow                              Writers: Jonathan Mostow & Sam Montgomery
Film Score: Richard Marvin                              Cinematography: Oliver Wood
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel and David Keith

Sixteen years after Wolfgang Peterson filmed the definitive World War Two German submarine picture in Das Boot, and a decade after the Cold War variation hit the screens with The Hunt for Red October, science-fiction writer-director Jonathan Mostow decided to take the genre in his own direction with U-571. This time the crew of a U.S. submarine is out to capture an Enigma machine from a disabled German U-Boat, with the goal of being able to break the Nazi code. The film took some criticism right off the bat because the British were primarily responsible for obtaining the Enigma machines. The U.S. didn’t capture one until 1944. On the opposite side, the scene showing the Germans killing survivors of the ship was another falsehood in that both Axis and Allied subs never took on prisoners, and the Germans only did that once. Nevertheless, audiences were receptive because it is an exciting film. The screenplay, by Mostow and fellow screenwriters Sam Montgomery and David Ayer, isn’t the most inventive and at times it even becomes cartoonish, but the cast is strong and they play it straight and for the most part it works. There’s a noticeable lack of production values on the scenes ashore, which gives it the look of a TV movie from the eighties, but that was probably to save money for the computer graphics that work well on the rest of the film at sea. The film even took home an Academy Award for best sound editing.

The film begins with text telling the reader that in 1942, the Allies were virtually helpless against German submarines as they hadn’t yet cracked the German U-Boat code. A Nazi sub captain Thomas Kretschmann takes aim at a ship and shoots a torpedo that breaks its back. But no sooner do they celebrate than they discover a destroyer bearing down on them from behind and depth charges force the damaged sub to the surface. In the U.S. an angry lieutenant Matthew McConaughey has been turned for his own sub command by captain Bill Paxton because he thinks he isn’t ready. Chief petty officer Harvey Keitel is aware of the situation but there’s nothing he can do. Orders have come down for some kind of secret operation in which the U.S. sub has been made to look like a German one, and men are put onboard who can speak and write in German. Marine major David Keith is there to lead the mission, to pose as a resupply boat sent to aid Kretshmann’s ship, and capture the enigma machine without the Germans knowing about it. They arrive there twelve hours ahead of the real ship, and the commando team takes two rafts over to the U-Boat. They kill the topside crew and manage to get inside. Keith finds the Enigma machine, and only loses a couple of men. They send the German prisoners over first, get everything on the rafts, light the explosives on the German sub and head for their own.

The twist comes when Paxton spots a torpedo heading for the U.S. sub and it explodes dead center. The U.S. ship and all the prisoners are gone, leaving the commando team to scramble first to keep the explosives from going off, and then prepare for the arrival of the real German sub. Suddenly McConaughey has his command. The one thing they have going for them in enemy waters is that they apparently are the enemy. But initially, the biggest threats come from within, first McConaughey’s inexperience, and second from the panic of seaman Erik Palladino--think Bill Paxton in Aliens. The acting is uneven overall, with some of the younger actors on the weak end. McConaughey is the center of the picture and carries it well. Both Paxton and Keith make a minimal impact, but Harvey Keitel was a good choice for McConaughey’s second. Thomas Kretschmann, in one of his earlier films, is exceptional, and one wishes he could have had more screen time. Other familiar faces are Jon Bon Jovi and Jake Weber, and Matthew Settle from Band of Brothers. How the film is received is going to depend on the viewer. Those seeking authenticity will definitely be disappointed and should steer clear. Those able to take it for what it is, a completely fictionalized version of actual events, will be able to enjoy it. And for those looking for action and little else, U-571 is a decent historical thrill ride.

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