“Either you succeed in sinking that ship, or you see to it that none of us survive to be captured”
Jonathan Mostow’s film U-571 (2000) exists in the liminal space between suspense and action, desperately grabbing onto historical magnitude to be catapulted out of it. And yet, this very affixation has caused it to be criticized for its historical inaccuracy. Still, the American-French co-production remains one of the most suspenseful submarine films to date, forcing critics to appreciate it for its cinematic value, and not its fumbled attempt at keeping history objective.
During the Battle of the Atlantic, German U-boat U-571 sustains engine damage, leaving it stranded with the priceless Enigma on-board. Informed about this by the country’s intelligence office, the American Navy sends out its own submarine to intercept the cipher device from the enemy. When an unexpected attack leaves one of the submarines in flames, Lieutenant Tyler’s (Matthew McConaughey) leadership capabilities are put to the test. With his reduced and battered crew struggling to stay focused on the mission, he finds his vessel facing a German destroyer, a ship powerful enough to send his men to the bottom of the ocean.
U-571 appears rather pompous at first, trying to capture and glorify snippets of heroism in every furtive shot, stilted line of dialogue and constipated grimace. While the initial scenes appear stifling, the air is quickly cleared with implicit humor. The sigh of relief comes in the form of an American intelligence officer (David Keith), whose first time aboard a submarine is riddled with guffaw-inducing dismay.
From there it becomes quite clear that humanity, in all its shapelessness, is planted firmly in the foreground. Tyler’s ambition seems jarring in the face of the ongoing war, but it manages to highlight his weaknesses, which become a strong catalyst for the film’s rising tension. Even a few Germans are presented as men conflicted about the brutality of the orders they are given.
In fact, the sailors on both sides appear equally war-ravaged, divided only by a language barrier. Unaccustomed to fighting, but given orders to kill anyway, the frightened men unveil the crippling face of humanity. Emphasis is placed not on their uniform, but the horrors that result from self-preservation, though the true nature of this instinct is often subjective.
What adds to U-571‘s choking suspense is the unravelling human psyche, as well as the claustrophobia that accompanies being submerged in depths known for their bone-crushing pressure. A hand-held camera appears once in a while to add to the sway experienced underwater, pushing up into the actors’ faces in the place of stray bullets and flesh-mangling metal. And all the while, the screen trembles from the overpowering music, which smears lines of dialogue until they’re almost unintelligible. While painfully frustrating, this aspect of audio engineering certainly highlights the evolution of filmmaking over the past 21 years.
Had it not been for the story’s stubborn clinging to the Enigma as its focal point, the film would be hard to fault. Unfortunately, history is a sensitive subject, and any attempts at recounting it can often leave a bitter aftertaste. When the film came out in 2000, Tony Blair, who was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the time, called it an “affront“. Nine years later, the wound was still fresh, and The Guardian went as far as to say that U-571 gives “historical films a bad name”.
That is because the United States’ involvement in the Western Front didn’t commence until mid-1941. Meanwhile, work on the Enigma, a cipher device used most notably to protect military communication by Nazi Germany during World War II, was spearheaded by the Poles in the early 1930s, then continued by the British.
By 1941, many Enigma machines had already been seized and decrypted in Europe. While the effort to collect the constantly changing codes was an endless process for the Allies, the film never makes any mention of this, appearing to deceive the audience about the importance of the prior events in world history. Nevertheless, U-571 offers a starting point for historical reconnaissance, and a thrilling cinematic experience to boot.
Amazon, DIRECTV, FandangoNOW, HBO, iTunes, Netflix, Redbox, Vudu