Directed by Jonathan Mostow
Review by Matt Heffernan
After the phenomenal success of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, everybody in Hollywood is trying to make a big war movie. The first of this wave of imitators is from Jonathan Mostow, director of 1997's Breakdown.
During World War II, the German military is evading the Allies with the use of the "Enigma" -- a virtually crack-proof coding machine. An American submarine, led by Lt. Cmdr. Mike Dahlgren (Bill Paxton), is disguised as a Nazi U-Boat, and is sent on a mission to infiltrate a damaged U-Boat that has an Enigma machine inside it.
They try passing themselves off as a supply ship, but a messy skirmish follows when their cover is blown. The American sub is destroyed, a great deal of sailors are lost, and now Lt. Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaghey) has to commandeer U-571 all the way to England to deliver the Enigma. To do this, they have to pass through hostile waters and try to figure out the controls of a strange ship, with only two crew members that can read German.
You can't really make a more straight-ahead, hooray-for-the-good-guys military yarn. U-571 never tries too hard to be a great war film; it just wants to plainly honor the men who risked (and often gave) their lives by fighting the war underwater. There are no poetic interludes, like in Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line. There is no real philosophy presented other than the need to win the war as quickly as possible. Such an approach is both the strength and the weakness of the film, which depends on the action to speak for itself.
The dialogue and characters are really secondary, but any film with Harvey Keitel will have at least one interesting character. Here he plays the crew chief who is fighting in his second world war, but is still an enlisted man who must take orders from much younger officers (including Jon Bon Jovi and Jake Weber). He provides the pillar of human strength that helps Lt. Tyler lead his men.
There are more war films to come, including Michael Bay's mega-budget Pearl Harbor, which begins shooting this year with Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin, and a huge cast of big stars. It is doubtful that any will compare to Spielberg's film, but if they are at least as good as U-571, the genre will be in pretty decent shape.
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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan