Twitter Plot Summary: The Americans run roughshod over history and create a film that is really, really bad.
Let’s ignore the revisionist historical story for a second and ask the question: does U-571 work on its own merits? This is a tricky question to ask, no doubt because many will prefer to look at the official history rather than let a film exist in isolation as a piece of entertainment. If nothing else, it proves that you should never claim that your nation made an important breakthrough in the war – the Brits will always kick off about their rightful place in history.
So, does U-571 work in isolation? To a degree, yes. If you ignore the moments where the music takes a needlessly heroic tack – such as when the Americans courageously work out how to pilot the u-Boat – the poorly structured exposition and the likewise needless shouty action sequences, it’s really just the story of McConaughey’s officer learning how to command a ship after Captain Bill Paxton (sadly not his character name nor an actual rank bestowed upon him) deems him not currently suitable for such a role. Indeed, the Enigma machine itself is almost a side note, an incidental story beat that is a Macguffin rather than a reason in itself for the film’s story to occur.
As it happens, that revisionist history is the one thing that works the least well, and understandably so. If it had made an effort to separate itself from the realities of war instead of implying that this was an adaptation of true events. It’s like a gung-ho stampede across history, rewriting it to suit nobody. Nobody except the red top newspapers if the critical praise on the DVD box are anything to go by.
Jonathan Mostow, known elsewhere for commencing the Terminator franchise with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and doing an acceptable if uninspiring stint on 2009’s Surrogates, is more than capable when it comes to action sequences, yet somehow he never seems entirely capable of nailing the right tone. He skirts around it but doesn’t ever hit the mark.
It’s a shame too because the cast is solid. Harvey Keitel, Bill Paxton, Thomas Kretschmann, Matthew McConaughey and Jake Weber are an impressive bunch of names to have in your cast. Heck, even Jon Bon Jovi rocks up to get a piece of the action.
The German U-Boat sections owe a heavy debt to Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot, a film much loved in this parish. Thomas Kretschmann sinks into Jurgen Prochnow mode with relative ease, although it all lacks the same level of narrative polish, attention to detail and gritty realism that makes Das Boot a quintessential war film.
You’ll get a fair bit of entertainment from the “sea adventure” vibe running through it, and you will of course get more from it if you’re a fan of submarine films, but at the same time you will be equally aware of how poor it is in comparison to many of the other examples in the genre. And if you have seen Das Boot… well, there’s almost no comparison between the two.