|U-571 (Collector's Edition)|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 24 October 2000|
‘U-571’ not only takes place during WWII but, color, sound and a few profanities in the dialogue aside, feels almost as though it could have been made during the era in which it is set. It is made with great physical craftsmanship, but the script by director Jonathan Mostow (who also wrote the original story) and Sam Montgomery and David Ayer is insistently schematic. For all of the dramatic possibilities in this tale of a submarine crew trapped on the wrong boat, the characters are drawn so schematically and follow such clear, traditional arcs that we almost might as well be watching a storyboard.
‘U-571’ is set in 1942, when the crew of a U.S. Navy submarine set forth on a secret mission to capture a German Enigma device that transmits Nazi codes. However, a few nasty surprises later, erstwhile second-in-command Lt. Tyler (Matthew McConaughey) winds up in charge of a small band of American sailors trapped aboard the badly damaged German submarine, the U-571.
Mostow as director and scenarist makes sure there’s enough action to go around, creating a real sense of creepy confinement within the leaking subs. There’s plenty of dramatic footage of speeding torpedoes and drifting but menacing depth charges. However, characterization is so predictable and so tied to exposition that when the script tries to milk possible sacrifice of self and others for emotion and suspense, it doesn’t work. We just don’t know these guys well enough to care particularly about them as individuals, worthwhile though their cause may be.
In a movie about submarines, depth charges and explosions, sound obviously plays a key part – but it sometimes does so in surprising ways, especially in the DTS soundtrack. In Chapter 2, the big band blast of trumpets as we enter a soiree packs an eye-widening jolt in the mains, while subtle footsteps in the rears persuade us we’re in the room. The rears really come alive in Chapter 4, blaring strident klaxon horns as the sub dives. The dive itself has a good aural "wash" effect, as we actually hear the ocean embracing the submarine. Chapter 5 has a rather amusing use of surround as crockery slides across the mess table, moving from mains to rears around and past us. There’s also a very good surround rain effect in Chapter 7, when the submarine surfaces in a downpour.
Chapter 9 has an explosion that is good but not shocking, although there’s a good sonic whip-pan effect throughout the speaker array as torpedoes launch and the back of the hull is scraped. However, the sound here is not specifically directional, so that it’s unclear where the noises are in physical relation to what we’re seeing onscreen. In contrast, Chapter 14 makes strong use of directional sound during a machine-gun battle, with plenty of heft in the mains as bullets fly and spent casings hit the metal deck. Chapter 16, with the sub under heavy fire, puts breaking glass into the mains and the tinkling fall-out of broken objects hitting the floor into the rears. Chapter 19 has a major, dimensional explosion that lets rip across all sound sources – if you want to single out one segment to check out for hard aural impact, this is it.
‘U-571’ comes with a treasure trove of supplemental material. We get not only the customary "making of" short and director commentary from the well-informed Mostow, but also five other mini-documentaries. These include Mostow’s interviews with British Navy Lt. Commander David Balme, who was involved in the capture of a real Enigma machine, and with U.S. Navy Vice-Admiral Patrick Hannifin, who served as the film’s technical advisor. The comments of the two military veterans deepen our understanding of the story so much that it might be wise to view the interviews before watching the film itself.
‘U-571’ is competent, but for all its activity, unless the viewer is a WWII submarine buff, the film is liable to ultimately prove often entertaining but never gripping.