Published April 1, 2000
U-571 by Jonathan Mostow, who directed and co-wrote it, might have been sub-titled “Indiana Jones Goes Underwater,” so many are the hair- breadth scapes i’th’imminent deadly breach. Once again, Hollywood has refused to learn the lesson that less can be more. For in real life — I mean if you were actually with the handful of American sailors on board the captured German submarine while it was being depth-charged by a German destroyer — you would have thought that each depth charge that exploded only feet away would bring you closer to your doom. But, since it is a movie, you know that the more the depth charges shake you up without killing you, the more certain it is that you cannot be killed. In other words, the more the movie demonstrates that it is a movie about men under extreme pressure, in this case both literal and figurative, the less the pressure the movie itself can exert. Unlike in real life, we know that these men have not been created only to be victims of a German depth charge.
In the same way, the young and untried skipper, Lt. Andy Tyler (Matthew McConaughey) has to learn the art of commanding men in battle on the job and announces that the sub’s only hope is to sink the destroyer. So, a pop quiz. What do you think is going to be the fate of that destroyer? The crusty old Chief Petty Officer (Harvey Keitel) who has been instructing the lieutenant in how to be a captain, reflects wonderingly: “You fixing to go up against a destroyer with only one fish in the tube and one shaft working?” Yep. That’s just what he’s fixing to do. And where fifty depth charges can only rattle the German sub (“Mary, Mother of God, those Krauts sure know how to build a boat!” says the Chief), one torpedo fired head on to the bow of the German destroyer is enough to send her to the bottom. Maybe the Krauts weren’t so knowledgeable about destroyers.
Another rather annoying thing about the movie is that the events it portrays — a boarding party of Americans capturing a German submarine and retrieving from it the Enigma encoding device — are represented as happening in May, 1942. In fact, the British had captured an Enigma machine two years before this and, having broken the code, were already reading secret German dispatches at the time these events are represented as having taken place. It may be that the story of the British sailors who actually did capture Enigma was not as suitable for movie treatment as this, fictional one, featuring submariners from a much larger market than the British, but it does leave a bad taste in the mouth that they are relegated to a brief mention in a title card at the end. Their exertions and sacrifices ought to have been worth some better tribute.
I might also mention a pet peeve of mine, which is the inclusion of recognizably post 1960s slang like “You got it” meaning “I will do so,” or “Outstanding!” as an exclamation meaning “Good.” Likewise, there is the ghetto use of a familiar obscenity to mean gossip or information: “You’d be surprised some of the s*** we mess stewards hear,” says the film’s token black man. I know, I know, it’s only a movie. And insofar as it’s only a movie, it’s not so bad. The special effects are pleasing, and, in spite of the handicaps already noted, the film does succeed in building up tension as our boys come under attack. You have the good guys, and you have the bad guys; and the good guys are pretty good, and the bad guys are very bad, machine-gunning survivors and castaways on the high seas on the direct orders of the Führer.
The irony of the dramatic situation is also pleasing. Lt. Tyler, executive officer to Captain Dahlgren (Bill Paxton), is angry with Dahlgren for scuppering his chances to get a command of his own on the grounds that he is not yet ready. Dahlgren says they have to put their differences behind them for the sake of the mission to capture the crippled German sub, adding “I know the men like you.”
“I’d give my life for any one of them,” says the Lieutenant fiercely.
“Your bravery is not in question,” the Captain replies (though he has scarcely had a chance to prove it yet). “But are you willing to put their lives on the line?”
Tyler hesitates and the Captain has made his point. As a captain himself, he would have to be willing to sacrifice his men without hesitation. So when he does, unexpectedly, get “my own boat,” the captured German sub, you can probably guess who is the first man he has to sacrifice. I also like the Chief’s talking to Tyler like a Dutch uncle after the new leader, before his men, confesses that he doesn’t know what to do next. “This is the Navy,” says the Chief in reply to the sort of maudlin reminiscence of boyhood which a lesser film would have made the key to Tyler’s character. “This is the Navy, where a commanding officer is a mighty and terrible thing… You’re the skipper now, and the skipper always knows what to do, even when he doesn’t.”
A movie about submarines in World War II inevitably invites comparison with Das Boot, which, along with Renoir’s Grande Illusion, may be one of the two best war movies ever made. What U-571 lacks is the German film’s sense of unit cohesion among the sub’s crew, the sense of camaraderie in shared danger which is ultimately what makes it possible for men to risk death in war. Lt. Tyler says that he would die for his men, but the film does not show us anything that might correspond to this sentiment in reality. Despite one conspicuous act of self-sacrifice, Tyler and his little crew come across as not-quite convincing warriors. Like their language, they bear the stamp of individualistic, turn-of-the-century America. They are decent enough sorts, on the whole, but without any obvious inner resources that would explain their actions. Das Boot shows that it is possible for a movie to reveal that emotional underlayer — that which could have made sense of this movie’s rather watchable special effects and so made it seem less like a movie, more like the real thing.