Universal // 2000 // 117 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // August 25th, 2008
"Relax gentlemen. She's old...but she'll hold."
History, they say, is written by the victorious. In the case of U-571 however, history is rewritten for commercial purposes.
As World War II rages on, the battle for the seas becomes a major priority. The Allies are facing desperate times. The Nazis are using Enigma coding machines to transmit messages, leaving the Allies unable to crack their codes.
When a German U-boat is damaged following an altercation with an Allied destroyer, the crew transmits an SOS signal that is picked up by the Allies. Quick to act, the U.S. Navy calls in Lt. Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey, Dazed and Confused) and his crew to partake in a top-secret mission.
Lt. Tyler, who has recently been denied the command of his own vessel, is somewhat disgruntled, but is quick to take up the challenge put before him: locate the damaged U-boat and retrieve the Enigma machine and codebooks aboard it.
Fully aware that the Nazis have also dispatched a crew to salvage the U-571, the Americans set off in a race against time in a mission that could significantly alter the course of the war. But the crew soon learns that retrieving the Enigma machine is just one of the perils they must overcome, if any of them are to survive.
Okay, my opening statement may come across as being more than a little snide, but whichever way you look at it, the creative types behind U-571 took liberties with the truth for reasons that were far from admirable.
The fact of the matter is the Royal Navy ship HMS Bulldog made the capture of the first Enigma machine, in May 1941, before the United States entered the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Now, I'm British and so am obviously going to take the film's historical inaccuracies to task, aren't I? Well, yes and no. Rightly or wrongly, I can accept the film for what it is: a popcorn-saturated, fictionalized version of history. That's fine. But there's no escaping the feeling that the film's rewriting of history is unnecessary and does a disservice to some of the brave men who fought for our freedoms.
U-571 also throws up the one and only time that I can remember that Hollywood and my hometown of Tamworth clashed (though I doubt Hollywood was even aware). You see back in 1942, Colin Grazier, who hailed from my hometown, died while on a top-secret mission against a German U-boat. The mission resulted in the retrieval of vital Enigma codebooks and is considered a major turning point in the war; experts claim it helped shorten the conflict by at least a year. The release of U-571 sparked outrage in my hometown as well across Britain as a whole, resulting in Tony Blair, then Prime Minister, calling the film "an affront" to British sailors. Screenwriter David Ayer would later speak of his regret at his "distortion...to create a parallel history in order to drive the movie for an American audience." What, to me, is so frustrating about all this, is that the United States did more than its fair share to bring an end to the war. Rewriting events like those depicted in U-571 only served to stir up unnecessary criticism that was easily avoidable.
To be fair, U-571 does acknowledge the truth and pays tribute to the real heroes before the end credits. Whether this is enough or not is perhaps a choice for the individual. Another point I feel I should stress is that, despite all the hoohah it caused, the Enigma machine is merely a "McGuffin," an object that drives the plot but isn't really the film's main focus. U-571 is really the story of Lt. Andrew Tyler (McConaughey) and his crew as they are sent into hell while being fully aware of the dangers they face.
Director Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines), who, along with Sam Montgomery and David Ayer, wrote the screenplay, crafts an exciting, though sensationalized series of events that contrasts sharply with the more subtle and refined Das Boot. This is clearly the Top Gun of submarine movies, with a lot less camp. That's not to say U-571 is just a series of big set pieces and nothing more. Mostow, when the mood takes him, is able to create genuinely tense moments. The sequence when a German destroyer is dropping depth charges on our heroes is particularly effective -- so effective in fact, that Mostow regurgitates it a couple more times for good measure.
The cast is good, very good in fact, with a standout performance from Harvey Keitel. Though he takes a backseat for the most part, Keitel's portrayal as McConaughey's mentor and conscience is understated yet pivotal. Speaking of McConaughey, the man turns in a solid performance. Due to roles in the likes of Sahara and Failure to Launch, it's easy to forget that McConaughey is actually an accomplished actor. Here he exudes a steely determination, initially to prove himself to his superiors, but eventually, as the realization of what it really means to be a captain takes hold, to save the lives of his crew. The quality of the acting is imperative to the film's success. Everyone, from the big names (Bill Paxton, Twister) and famous faces (Jon Bon Jovi, Moonlight and Valentino) to the lesser-known players (Tom Guiry, Black Irish) pulls his weight; the actors are genuinely convincing as a band of brothers. It is this camaraderie that engages viewers on an emotional level and keeps them glued to the screen.
The 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer is truly a joy to behold. Sharp, with high levels of detail, U-571 benefits greatly from the upgrade to Blu-Ray. With most of the film set in the darkness and dank of a submarine, it's pleasing to see no loss in detail or clarity. The most impressive element of the transfer is how often the images have a three-dimensional appearance. An early scene shared between Keitel and McConaughey is a prime example, with both actors seemingly being real enough to touch (I can only hope a Blu-Ray version of Bad Lieutenant isn't so impressive; would you really want a naked, gibbering Keitel coming out of your TV?). The audio on the disc is even better. Seriously, this is one soundtrack that demands to be cranked up to neighbor-annoying levels (not that I condone such behavior, of course).
The Blu-Ray disc also features a decent set of extras. Though not particularly impressive in terms of quantity, the special features do impress. Kicking off is an audio commentary with director Jonathan Mostow. The track offers a good insight into the making of the film, through each stage of its development; including the historical aspects. In a slight change from the HD DVD release of U-571, the Blu-Ray version reworks the featurettes into a picture-in-picture (PiP) track. While I appreciate Universal making the most of the possibilities of Blu-Ray, it would have been nice to have the featurettes as standalone extras as well.
U-571 continually falls into the trap of telegraphing forthcoming events. Early on in the film, Bill Paxton's Lt. Cmdr Dahlgren tells McConaughey's Lt. Taylor that, to command a ship, he must make decisions that he knows will result in the death of his men. Well, wouldn't you know it, such a decision does crop up; who'd have thought it?
Despite containing some genuinely tense moments, U-571 loses points for one or two underdeveloped characters that are clearly going to end up as cannon fodder. With perhaps only two exceptions, you'll be able to make a reasonable guess at who lives and who dies.
Put the historical inaccuracies to one side, crank up the sound, and U-571 reveals itself to be an entertaining war movie. It's all really quite predictable, but never dull, and man, do those explosions look good in Hi-Def!
Review content copyright © 2008 Paul Pritchard; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Picture in Picture
* Feature Commentary with Director Jonathan Mostow
* Official Site