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Historically flawed, but so what?

Review: 'U-571' an underwater thriller

graphic

April 20, 2000
Web posted at: 2:58 p.m. EST (1858 GMT)

(CNN) -- Few films have been made about the United States' involvement in the Korean War, and most of the movies about Vietnam display little gung-ho patriotism. That leaves filmmakers with the last "good" war, World War II, to visit whenever they want to make a "let's go do it for Uncle Sam" movie.

Writer/director Jonathan Mostow has done so with a shuddering, diving vengeance in "U-571."

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Submarine dramas, from "Run Silent, Run Deep" in 1958 to "The Hunt for Red October" in 1990, never fail to capture moviegoers' imagination. There's something innately dramatic about a bunch of unshaven, sweaty men, trapped together in a tin-can submarine hundreds of feet deep in hostile waters, getting pounded by depth charges. "U-571" captures that drama to a T.

A desperate mission

A fast-paced, character-driven tale, the film focuses on a U.S. submarine crew on a desperate mission to capture a German U-boat carrying "Enigma," a top-secret Nazi decoding device. There's just one little catch: The Nazis can't know the machine has been stolen, or they'll change its code, rendering the device worthless to Allies anxious to listen in on their enemies.

Matthew McConaughey plays Lt. Andrew Tyler, meaning he now can add "action star" to his resume. Bill Paxton portrays his superior, Capt. Mike Dahlgren, a veteran skippering a vintage World War I sub older than most of its crew. Harvey Keitel plays Chief Klough, another old-timer steeped in the traditions of the seas.

Also along for the ride are David Keith as a battle-tested Marine and Jake Weber, who appears as a wimpy expert of the Enigma machine.

Rounding out the crew is an array of up-and-coming young Hollywood studs, including Jon Bon Jovi, Matthew Settle, Jack Noseworthy, T.C. Carson, Thomas Guiry, Erik Palladino (from the TV show "ER"), Dave Powers, Derk Cheetwood and Will Estes. But don't get attached to any of these characters; they're expendable.

Plans go awry

Wearing German uniforms and operating a sub rigged to look like an enemy U-boat, the crew sets out to rendezvous in the North Atlantic with the U-571, a crippled German sub carrying an Enigma machine. The plan is to capture the ship and its crew, seize Enigma, sink U-571 and slink back to the states with no one the wiser.

Naturally, everything goes terribly wrong. While aboard the U-571, the Americans' sub is sunk by another U-boat, leaving them trapped on a German vessel. Everything is labeled in German, meaning they don't know how to operate the sub, and the Germans and Allies are both hot on their underwater trail.

To quote Bette Davis: "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night."

Mostow, along with co-writer David Ayer, has created a script with plenty of action, numerous twists and turns, and terrifying battle scenes that are brillantly edited. Facing nearly insurmountable obstacles, the men struggle to escape, but everywhere they turn they find themselves trapped.

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Good crew, fine cast

McConaughey is believable as a man thrust into a drastic situation where lives depend on his actions. His journey from a dazed and confused second-in-command to a steely-calm decision maker is magnetic. Keitel lends enormous weight to his role as the seasoned chief who follows orders no matter what. Paxton, in a brief but vital role, is also excellent.

Husband-and-wife producing team Martha and Dino De Laurentiis go to great lengths to make clear that "U-571" is fictitious. Why? Because there really was an Enigma machine. At least three were stolen, too.

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But the British, not the Americans, first successfully ripped off the device, broke the code, and thus helped turn the war in the Allies' favor. So it should hardly be a surprise that reportedly there are Brits who served under the Union Jack who are a little peeved about the switch. That explains why the film is dedicated to "all the men" who served the Allied cause in World War II.

Historical rearrangements aside, "U-571" is enormously entertaining. Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition.


"U-571" opens nationwide on Friday, April 21, and is rated PG-13. Running time is 116 minutes.



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Official 'u-571' site
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