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U-571 Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 March 2007

Image One of the most popular espionage subjects that originated in World War II was the German Enigma machine. Using the device, the Germans were able to send and receive coded messages without fear of the Allied Forces being able to understand them. The Germans used codes in World War I as well—most armies did—but the Enigma machine was cutting-edge tech at the time. Where the first codes were based on language and could be broken within hours, the Enigma machine created code based on mathematical equations that resulted in days and weeks of code-breaking skills. The time consumed was too large to allow the Allies any chance at acting on the intelligence they gleaned from breaking the codes.

During World War II, especially in the North Atlantic area where the German U-boats were wreaking havoc with the shipping lanes, cutting off aid and supplies to Great Britain, opportunities arose to capture the Enigma machines from submarines. The German submarines benefited most from the Enigma machine because they could run largely undetected under the sea until they attacked or crossed paths with Allied ships. Once the Allied Intelligence learned of the Enigma machine, standing orders were given to capture the devices whenever possible.

“U-571”, though based on actual stories where Enigma machines were captured from German submarines, is a work of fiction and highly dramatized. Everything that goes wrong for the United States submarine crew goes wrong at precisely the wrong time, but they manage to work through it. The stories told in the special features section don’t really suggest the cloak-and-dagger work that the men in this movie face.

The tense opening, in German with English translation, is excellent. The desperation of the U-boat’s captain and her crew is vividly depicted. Just as they’re successful in hitting their target and eluding the hunters pursuing them, disaster strikes. They’re left adrift, without engines or enough battery power to return home for repairs. They send a frantic signal and the movie cuts away. This build-up is excellent and pulls the viewer into the movie. But it also sets up some false expectations that the viewer will get to know more about the German crew. Most viewers will anticipate that only to find out that doesn’t happen.

The main plot at first centers around the United States Navy submarine under Lieutenant Commander Mike Dahlgren (Bill Paxton). His men have just been given a 48-hour pass for liberty. Lieutenant Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey) has just received official notice that he’s not being given command of a submarine. Tyler braces Dahlgren over the matter and Dahlgren tells him that he’s just not ready for the command yet. Tyler is an excellent XO (executive officer) but still needs to learn some things. While nursing his ego, Tyler finds out that Chief Petty Officer Henry Klough (Harvey Keitel) also made a recommendation that Tyler not get a sub.

Abruptly, the shore leave is canceled and the sailors are hustled back onto their boat without explanation. Tyler gets blown off by Dahlgren as well, which increases their the animosity. One of the best parts of the movie is the arrival of United States Marine Corps Major Matthew Coonan (David Keith) from Naval Intelligence. This is a meat and potato role that fits Keith to a T, yet it also progresses largely unfulfilled. At one point, Coonan tells Tyler that he’ll train the sub’s crew, but that’s never shown during the movie.

Aboard the ship, Lieutenant Hirsch (Jake Weber) informs Tyler and a young radio operator fluent in German that Naval Intelligence has picked up the signal of a stricken German sub in the North Atlantic. They’re going to go there, pose as a German sub long enough to get the drop on them, and hopefully steal the Enigma device on board. In the meantime, German ships are headed for the U-boat as well and it’s going to be a race to see who gets there first.

As the US sub gets underway, the tension between the captain and XO is thick, but simply doesn’t pay off—it s not the true drive of the movie. Even the animosity between Tyler and Chief Klough doesn’t heat up. There is one point, though, where Keitel shines as the Chief. During a particularly large setback, Tyler is challenged by the men to tell them what they’re going to do with all the odds against them. Tyler tells the men that he doesn’t know. Chief Klough tells Tyler the last thing he should tell the crew is that he doesn’t have a plan. Klough says the men have to believe in him even when Tyler can’t believe in himself.

With the talent available (McConaughey, Paxton, Keith, and Keitel), it would have been great to see them all in emotional conflicts. All of them are men who can hold there own in such scenes. But they’re never given the chance.

Rock superstar Jon Bon Jovi plays Lt. Pete Emmett, delivering a stand-up performance that shows he knows more than music. Some of the other supporting characters are excellent and help make the movie a little more tense as they constantly face danger.

The U-571 feels real. So do the scenes at sea. It’s easy to feel threatened and claustrophobic during several scenes in the movie. The popping rivets, the depth charges, and the constant water leaking into the sub are nerve-wracking at time. The set designers and director provide a lot of tension in those scenes by paying attention to lighting and the dripping splashes.

A lot of the imagery in “U-571” is stark and vivid, suddenly splashing across the screen. Many times the darkened interiors of the subs seem monotone, but the lighting brings out the details. With the HD DVD version, the video portion of the film is crisp and clean.

The audio portion of the HD DVD delivers an outstanding job during the depth charge and torpedo attacks. There’s no real score, so the audio portion only comes into play intermittently. But the dialogue and other sounds come across sharply.

The special features shine regarding the historical presentation of the background of code-breaking and the importance of the Enigma scenes. Jonathan Mostow, the writer-director, talks with a British sailor who helped capture a German sub that had one of the Enigma machines on it. The stories of the men who performed these actions and seized the devices are awesome and inspiring. It’s easy to see where Mostow got his inspiration for the early story.

Extremely watchable, “U-571” remains primarily plot-driven. Events consume the heroes and force them to outthink the German Navy at every turn. Every twist and turn of the action, every success, pins Lieutenant Tyler and his crew up against the wall again. However, the characterization is paper-thin, so even Tyler’s problem with being too close to the crew goes by the wayside much too quickly to carry much weight.

“U-571” is a good movie to sit down with for a night’s entertainment—the characters and situations turn as smoothly as the parts of an engine. Unfortunately, this makes the movie somewhat predictable regarding who lives and who dies. An example is the German U-boat captain’s survival. He’s the one man that can really screw up Tyler’s plans, and does, and yet no other German sailor turns up. Not only that but Lieutenant Hirsch’s quick dealing with the man is too simple.

Still, the movie excels at delivering the claustrophobic atmosphere of fighting on a submarine. When U-571 starts popping rivets when she’s well below the safe dive zone, tension mounts even if the outcome seems pretty certain. The movie is well worth renting for a night’s entertainment, and worth buying for any fan of World War II submarine movies.

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