When it comes to films that take place in submarines, World War II is still the favorite time period. There have been exceptions - The Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide spring to mind - but the majority of these underwater thrillers are set in the '40s, with Allied and German submarines stalking each other through the murky depths. The wartime atmosphere is undoubtedly one reason, but two other factors come into play: the lack of advanced technology and the absence of a nuclear threat. Combined, these elements turn submarine movies into cat-and-mouse affairs where the quicker, smarter captain wins, not the one with the best technology.
As submarine movies go, U-571 gets the job done - that is to say, it tells an engaging (albeit predictable) story and features several scenes of nail-biting suspense. All of the usual plot staples are in evidence: tension between crew members, deep diving where the hull threatens to collapse, dodging depth charges, and sub-to-sub battles. Director Jonathan Mostow (the man behind the camera for the relentless but hugely overrated Breakdown) should be commended for taking a thin script and crafting a compelling film out of it. U-571 doesn't hold together well upon reflection, but, while it's playing on screen, it works.
The storyline is simple enough. The crew of a U.S. submarine is sent on a top-secret mission to board a disabled German U-boat and steal a secret encoding device. The boarding crew is led by Lt. Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey), whose relationship with his captain (Bill Paxton) is currently strained. Once Tyler's group has boarded the U-571, a German sneak attack destroys the U.S. sub, and the navy officers are forced to maneuver the crippled U-boat through enemy territory while being pursued by a German destroyer.
U-571 contains some great, sustained action sequences, the best of which is the climactic one, which features about ten minutes of nonstop tension as the submarine sinks to potentially fatal depths then ends up in a race against time. The battle scenes are well executed, with Mostow effectively conveying the confusion and chaos of what happens when a submarine is buffeted by depth charges that threaten to split it wide open. Bolts pop, water explodes through leaks, sparks fly, and fires start. The experience of watching these sequences is visceral.
On an intellectual level, the movie is less successful. The characters aren't just underdeveloped - they are undeveloped. The only one with any backstory is Tyler, and all we know about him is that he was denied a promotion because his captain was unsure that he possessed the fortitude to send men to their deaths. We know nothing about the background or personality of any of the other men stuck on the U-571, except how they react to the crisis at hand. This complete lack of development makes it difficult to care about the characters. On the other hand, the work of actors like McConaughey (who does a believable job), Harvey Keitel (who remains clothed and effectively restrained), Bill Paxton, and Jake Weber illustrates that there's room for solid performances even in the absence of strong characterization. All of these actors are good "in the moment" and exhibit convincing reaction shots.
It is inevitable that any submarine movie will be compared to Das Boot, Wolfgang Petersen's unforgettable classic. During its most effective moments, U-571 comes close to Das Boot, but the sense of claustrophobia is not as strong. In Das Boot, we feel like we're trapped in the sub with the men; in U-571, we're observers. It isn't all filmmaking technique - the characters in Das Boot are developed and well rounded, but those in U-571 are there to serve the plot. Story-wise, Das Boot is stronger as well. U-571 follows a formula-driven format that Petersen's film f
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