Thursday, 27 April 2017

U-571 (2000)

Matthew McConaughey and Harvey Keitel crack the Engima Code. With lots of guns. And no maths at all.

Director: Jonathan Mostow
Cast: Matthew McConaughey (Lt. Andrew Tyler), Bill Paxton (Lt. Com. Mike Dahlgren), Harvey Keitel (Chief Henry Klough), Jon Bon Jovi (Lt. Peter Emmett), David Keith (Major Matthew Coonan), Jake Weber (Lt. Michael Hirsch), Jack Noseworth (Bill Wentz), Erik Palladino (Anthony Mazzola), Thomas Kretschmann (Capt. Gunther Wassner)

On its release, U-571 was something of a sensational scandal– and in fact gained far more attention than a fairly standard submarine movie probably deserved. Why is that? Because it epitomised the perception in this country of American films taking war achievements from us poor Brits and giving them to Yankee heroes. Was this annoying for a British people all to used (it seemed) to having their war contribution lost in the crush of American films? You betcha.

During World War 2, Lt. Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey) is sent to lead a team of American sailors to capture an Enigma machine from a stranded German sub. The Enigma machine, and the inability of the Allies to break it, is losing America (whose involvement in the war has been moved forward for the purposes of this story) the war after all. However, the mission swiftly goes wrong and Tyler is left commanding a rogue bunch of terrified sailors on the captured German submarine, trying to get the Engima machine back to the US Navy before its loss is discovered. All that is missing is Alan Turing reinvented as a hard-boiled Brooklyner totting a machine gun and shouting "I gotta Bombe for ya, ya Kraut Bastards!".

The movie itself is not too bad, to be honest. although nothing special. The expected clich├ęs of the submarine are all there: the fears about water pressure, claustrophobia, a sequence where the boat sinks inexorably towards the bottom of the ocean, torpedoes in the water, depth charges, “right full rudder”, sonar pings, water gushing from pipes, someone having to undertake a vital repair underwater with limited air supply etc etc. – it’s all been done before, from Enemy Below to Crimson Tide. Saying that, Jonathan Mostow knows how to cut the heck out of a movie and as a result this charges forward with a relentless energy which works rather well and makes this a suitably tense film. Special mention also goes to the sound editing, which won an Oscar for its brilliant creation of the aural impact of everything from depth charges to torpedoes scraping hulls.

Of course the story itself is nothing unique: even the personal plot lines are largely recycled from other movies: will McConaughey’s young XO be placed in a situation where he has to prove his chops as a commander? You bet he will! Keitel is an Old Sea Dog, Paxton is a fatherly Captain, Kretschmann is a cold professional German – but the actors play these well shuffled stock characters with an admirable level of commitment. The film has a great “Dirty Dozen” vibe to it, and does manage to throw in a couple of surprises about character fates. For those of us who love the predictable trotted out with po-faced commitment and energy, it's hard not to be entertained.

There are some well-done (if unsurprising) scenes as Tyler struggles with his authority over men who don’t have trust in him and are terrified of getting killed. It’s interesting how much the film asks us to invest in essentially willing Tyler (a decent performance by McConaughey) to have the guts to send a man to his death for the good of the ship. Centring this moral dilemma as a crucial qualification for leadership at least means the film does take a honest look at the complexities of command to counter the boys’-own heroics elsewhere. Saying that, the almost pathological mutinous rumblings of Seaman Mazzola against an officer we are told early in the film is “popular with the men” does seem rather sudden – possibly because making Tyler a distant stick-in-the-mud (which he would need to be for the level of rejection from the crew to really work) rather than a regular Joe might have made us less likely to root for him at the start.

Of course all of this seems pretty inconsequential next to the real issue of the film, which is its historical accuracy (or complete lack thereof). To be honest, the fury against the film’s appropriation of British Naval achievements is rather harder to sustain (a) nearly 20 years on and (b) when you see what an agenda-free, entertainment-only movie it is. Perhaps the real insult was that the crew of this mission contained actors like Jon Bon Jovi and the guy who played ER’s Dr Dave. But that doesn’t change the fact that this stuff didn’t happen, and the elements of the story that did certainly didn’t happen like this and were done by completely different people. It’s hard to shake the feeling, even while you enjoy the film, that it gives a false glory to the wrong people. If even a few people came out of it thinking the Americans cracked Engima (or that Engima was cracked like this rather than primarily by maths) it’s certainly a few people too many. 

As a side note, while reading up about the film before this review, I found that one of the screenwriters, David Ayer (now a purveyor of average WW2 films himself with Fury), had this to say about the controversy of the film’s re-writing of history: “[I do] not feel good…it was a distortion, a mercenary decision to create this parallel history in order to drive the movie for an American audience…Both my grandparents were officers in World War Two, and I would be personally offended if somebody distorted their achievements…I understand how important that event is to the UK, and I won’t do it again.”

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