RIORI Presents Installment #182: Jonathan Mostow’s “U-571” (2000)



The Crew…

Matthew McConughey, Harvey Keitel, Jake Weber and Bill Paxton, with TC Carson, Dirk Cheetwood, Will Estes, Tom Gulry, Jon Bon Jovi(!), David Keith, Jack Noseworthy, Erik Palladino, Dave Power and Matthew Settle.


The Briefing…

At the height of World War II, the Germans ruled the Atlantic with their U-Boat corps. The Nazis own the Atlantic from just beneath the surface. The subs are cutting off supply lines and ruining the Allied fleet via stealth and torpedoes, instilling fear and risk in all who traversed the ocean. According to the Admirality, it will take more brains than brawn to earn the upper hand.

The Nazis’ submariners have intelligence in spades, thanks to their Enigma codex. No Allied force can unscramble the Reich’s next mission until it’s too late due to the machine’s spell-bending, and yet another U-Boat sinks another Allied ship down to Davy Jones’ Locker, all hands lost.

What the US Navy needs is a break, that and a so-crazy-it-just-might-work mission to hijack a U-Boat, steal one of those Enigma contraptions and crack those secret orders wide open, potentially saving hundreds of lives in the process.

The US Navy requires seasoned crew of skilled sailors to handle such a daring mission. But where to find such skilled sailors? Nowhere, but this is war, and it’s always country before self, so we best take our chances on Lt Tyler’s very green crew.


The Flap…

I’ve never been much for war pictures. Not sure why. I’ve seen a great many of them, some held in very high esteem according to movie geeks more seasoned than I. I have seen and enjoyed Saving Private Ryan, Apocalypse Now (a favorite of mine, which may be Coppola’s finest moment), M*A*S*H, The Longest Day and Born On The Fourth Of July to name a few. All good, if not great movies revolving around our species’ endless need to divide and conquer. The stuff gets you on a gut level, primal and also basal. On the flip side combat movies are easy to digest; all the drama and action is a lot sexier than seeing any actual combat. Go ask any Vietnam veteran.

That must be it. I’m no soldier, but despite all the violence and the human factor under the lens, war on film doesn’t look that…real. I know, I know. They’re movies. What’s reality got to do with it, Tina? I’m not talking about historical accuracy or torsos being shredded by tripping a claymore in full THX, dang it. Nope. I need my war movies ugly, sweating of desperation and dire consequences. I need drama without soliloquy. In short, I need grime in my war films. I think you know what I’m screaming. Grimy.

I guess that the only war movies that stuck to my ribs revolve around submarines. Now we’re talking grime. I have never, ever seen a “pretty” submarine war flick. Everything is wet, from sea bilge to dripping pipes to the de rigueur hull breach to perspiration f*cking all over the flinty, terrified crew. Grimy. I think it must have something to do with all that claustrophobia, all that canned air. Tension is guaranteed to get ramped up real quick, and the pipes and wheels looming all over the cast like some mocking maze. There’s an immediate understanding of no escape. Always acting on your feet, as it were. Such anti-romanticism might’ve been the result of reading Tom Clancy’s The Hunt For Red October one two many times. Hey, it was a good book. Drew me in and made me wonder what kind of movie it might make.

Segue…

There are many more sub movies out there, but I can safely count on one hand a few silent service action movies that always keep ratcheting it up just one notch more, meter by meter below. All that sweat, all that grime. There’s the immortal Das Boot by Wolfgang Petersen (IE: pronounced “Volf-gong Pay-der-sen” for you exacting film nuts out there), the grimiest, most intense and probably most historically accurate, sh*tty depiction about being on a submarine crew. Disenfranchised Nazi submariners just trying to survive below decks and f*ck all to the missions the Reich command, so long as their Navy looks good regardless of who’s stretching their necks for Germany. These Nazi submariners fight for home and hearth and bloody hate their mission. Suck it in; its war.

The movie adaption of Red October was unpretentious and satisfying, had perfect pacing and starred an amazing cast with my man Sean Connery, the underrated Scott Glenn and a whipper-snapper Alec Baldwin as the ideal Jack Ryan, man without a country (BTW, it’s odd now to figure such an adored comedic actor was once an action star. And shot people to boot). The movie was a classic cat-and-mouse caper, with a dash of social commentary thrown in for good measure. All the characters had a history, all the subplots added up to a rewarding whole and despite the clean undersea scene, there was lots of sweat. Sure, the Red October and the Dallas looked like luxury liners, but still felt cloistered and desperate. Lotsa sweat, man. Lotsa sweat. Did I mention the director helmed the original Die Hard? There ya go and check it out.

Technically not a submarine thriller, James Cameron’s The Abyss (his best film. Refute me) is an awesome undersea survival movie. Claustrophobia reigns, as well as an undersea rig ready to tear apart at the reams, pressure reigning down from above and below. Most folks balk at The Abyss, all pissy about not seeing enough undersea aliens. They missed the point. Alien contact is the icing. The crew surviving long enough to have a third encounter is the cake. The protagonists are not the aliens; they’re men, just as on shore. That mess and it’s a pretty great homage to The Day The Earth Stood Still, so long as you watch the three-plus hour directors version. Never fear. It’s a Cameron flick. It’ll flow by like Taco Bell through the orifice of your choice, voluntary or otherwise. You’re welcome for the visual. Moving on.

It’s all about the cramped quarters. Modern nuke subs have a crew complaint at a little over 130, including officers. The average length of a modern Ohio class-sub is approximately 560 feet. The actual space for actual humans to function is no larger than a dog park. For 130 bodies. No room for a beer bust, or pooper scoopers. Can you feature that? The graduating class of some suburban high school crammed into a nuclear powered tin can, which is more or less and inverted balloon (like a jet airliner fuselage holding back all that pressure) with foreign objects ready to scar all that steel and carbon fiber.

You wanna talk about pressure? I’m not just talking about structural integrity here, but pressure on the sailors brave and daring enough to submerge in those old-fashioned diesel and electric powered subs of yesteryear, the kind that were swifter above the surface than below the waterline. Sonar was fuzzy, if even available and when you’re using bumps and bonks as a mean of rough navigation. And if gets too dicey to got to periscope depth that lumbering drone of a battleship can be easily confused by whale song. Until the depth charges start falling.

You wanna talk about pressure? Sweat, stink and swearing. If Petersen’s movie was the acid test, then a tour under the sea is akin to living in a mouldering YMCA pool locker in July. One could practically smell the fungus and foot rot. I would not at all be surprised by all the frayed nerves, patchy facial hair and having a short, profane order from Herr Kapitän or the cook. From stealth breeds bravado, and that invites death by torpedo or crush depth.

You wanna talk about pressure? From what limited civvie understanding I have about submarines is that they are all are haunted, and death is omnipresent. I wouldn’t bother shaving either. Haunted by way of compressed, grimy humanity squeezed into a unforgiving microcosm of fear, perspiration and the glory of the hunt. Happens little, worth the wait and risk.

After all this folderol, it might—barely—suggest I have some big message to get across. Of course not. Said all that had be said about the pressure of being on a sub crew/recreating that isolation and scene chewing required to make a film recreation palpable. There are precious few, and precious few further. Will U-571 make the grade?

Dive! Dive!


The Mission…

Britain is starving for ammo, food and sundries. The Blitz left London in pieces, and the rest of England didn’t fare much better. True the bombing ruined the Realm, but without proper supplies the country can’t even think of rebuilding.

It’s all because of those damned Kraut U-boats. Sneaking up from nowhere and torpedoing supply ships to so much flotsam and jetsam, score of lives taken. The Admiralty is furious at such audacious, cowardly warfare, not to mention quite scared of it also. To wit, the Treaty of Versailles never said boo about submarines. Furthermore, how it is those damned Axis subs can always, always thwart the Allied missions before the fool things haven’t even been carried out?

The US Navy has a hunch. It’s the Nazi’s blasted Enigma codex. Unbreakable. Thanks to that hellish gizmo the Axis are able engage the Allies under the seas faster than the wind blows. The Enigma can most likely predict that, too. Blast!

What the Allies can only hope for is a lucky break…and they get one.

Flap is that there is a stranded U-Boat floating in international waters, with “precious cargo” aboard. Now is the Navy’s chance. Take the boat, disable the crew and abscond with the Enigma. Straightforward, and with as little grease as possible.

Heading up this secret mission is the seasoned and hale Lt Cmdr Dahlgren (Paxton). Despite the need-to-know basis of the mission, and due to a lack of sailors, Dahlgren is hampered with a very green crew save his aide-de-camp Lt Tyler (McConughey) and grizzled Chief Klough (Keitel). The rest are green-gilled and literally wet behind the ears.

No matter. Service first, and so the mission proves successful…until Dahlgren and crew are holed by a German torpedo, and their boat is sinking fast. What to do now?

Right. The American crew has no other choice but to commandeer the Nazi vessel and sail safely back to the United Kingdom with the Enigma intact.

And hopefully themselves, too.


The Report…

Beyond being some submarine caper, U-571 is a measured—very measured—character study, even with the wartime histrionics. Meaning there is no wallpaper here regarding roles. Everyone in the movie has a purpose, kinda like being on a sub crew. These men (beyond the headliners) are well-formed characters with personalities and foibles of their own. Barring how odd that sturdy character actor David Keith and cinematic fringed leather jacket novelty Jon Bon Jovi evaporate from the plot, these swabbies feel like real people. Smart way to have an audience invest their two-plus hour attention well beyond the stretching point. That being said, the time just flew by. Economical pacing considering the closed quarters and skirting-close-to-formula plot.

(Another moment of your time. I’d feel remiss in not bringing this point up at least once here picking apart U like so much leftover Chinese food. Pick, pick, picky, but I feel it necessary.

Not surprisingly, and since the film did the research as U was based on actual events. Whether or not the events coalesced into a feasible whole? Don’t ask me. It’s understood, however, that films based on “true” events are more often than not subjected to “creative liberties” and sweetening. Y’know, make it all sexier like. However again, this was a war movie “inspired by true events.” That being said, I understand why its release in the United Kingdom ruffled a few feathers. A whole chicken coop’s worth. According to the historical records, the erstwhile true events were based upon the exploits of the desperate British Navy, not an American crew. Sweet.

I’m the last person you’d ever mistake for a patriotic flaggot, but I feel their ain’t enough Stevia in the solar system to warrant such a gauche move. And not even a proper send off before the credits roll. Like we couldn’t have taught Mac a British cum Fort Worth accent, alright? Alright. Alright lame.)

Where were we? Right. Movie. That thing.

I didn’t find U to be your typical submarine actioner. Shocking. I got the feeling that director Mostow wanted to bring some zing back to war movies with as little navel (naval?) gazing as possible. This movie dropped two years after Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, both high watermarks of existential combat cinema. Mostow brings the flash not just with terse action scenes, but that character interplay thing. Felt like he was going with some solo vision, sorta indie feel here, all stripped down. It kinda worked. More on that later.

Like the above pair, you get drawn into the drama by getting drawn into the characters’ heads (literally in Red Line and to excess) with U. I repeat: everyone has their place, but their place is based on immediate action—duty—which invests you into what happens next. Here, it’s down to the wire. Sure, Mac, Pax and Sport are the stars and that gets butts in the doors, but the supporting crew keeps you seated. Worked for me. plays like a play: deliberately staged and structured. It’s a nice change from the beyond crazy cray-cray 90s sweatfests so rampant since Sly Stallone hurtles towards Social Security eligibility (“I am the law!”). Burp.

U is an odd duck of an action film, not so often these days. Heavy on the drama, characterization and kerboom in that order. I stand by my conviction that if weren’t for Mostow shoving around fully fleshed out characters this would be just another sweaty Bruce Willis shoot ’em up. Nope. You actually have a modicum of care, if not concern for the sailors, even on both sides of the wire. Namely I appreciated all angles of the cast and how they were used. Not liked mind you. Watching the cast interacting with one another, the plot weaving in and out, it was not dissimilar to watching a chess match. Back and forth, back and forth. Run to the fore of the sub for extra weight. Thinking on one’s feet as to how to fix the diesels. Low level “sonar.” All these tasks cut workmanlike and with precision, and I repeat all of the casting was competent and well-executed.

A minor carp was the whole “liked mind you” crack. Here’s an example: McConaughey has always oozed slick confidence from his roles. Not here; he’s all anxiety and stress. Never seen him so grim. Serious, but a capable action hero. Not great, but serviceable. As great as the casting was, everything felt rather five degrees off cool. Slighty off and awkward. Keitel feels kinda out of place here (despite, or because of him being the sole voice of reason), but just because he’s Keitel, not someone like Sport for example. The rest of the swabbies don’t have a lot of backstory, but that didn’t feel like a detriment to me based against how well the cast worked together. I know that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but if you catch the movie you might see what I mean.

On, and that “other side of the wire” bit? I appreciated how the Nazi submariners all had beards. No washing or shaving on a U-boat. A touch of humanity to a piece of the Reich’s more infamous elements of blitzkrieg. Mostow took some obvious cues from Das Boot. You almost feel bad for the Germans. That’s good direction. It’s also a bittersweet conceit that the Axis submariners are sailors first, not wind-up toys for the Reich. I felt that humanizing the enemy made the tension all the more palatable; these are people, sailors like Tyler’s crew. This notion perhaps filled in the blank I mentioned before. I know that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but if you catch the movie you might see what I mean.

Uh, right.

This was an action movie, right? So where would an action flick be without its bucket of tech stuff to play with? Right! Hot Topic!

BONK

Thanks. From what I know about submarine architecture (which isn’t much. Most of it came from movies) quarters are always cramped, stations are relegated to a single chair and every inch of available space is designed for keeping the boat afloat and the crew alive. Again, Das Boot comes closest to this miserable truth. Heck, the sets of Red October were f*cking palatial compared to the workshop function over form that was U. And since this movie dropped circa 2000 we got really good models, not CGI. I dug that. Made the underwater scenes all the more real and seminal. Desperation does not let up. Grimy, remember? Claustrophobic of course, but the sets made the mission all more dire, like could rip apart at the seams at any moment…and almost does. The plunging depth charges, the winding torpedoes, and the B plot matters with keeping the diesels and batteries online and the boat alive. It was intense, resulting in excellent pacing. Right in the butter zone for an undersea action caper. I was grinding my teeth a lot, despite my dentist’s warnings about watching too many sub movies.

A final note, I appreciated how not glamorous it was to be on Tyler’s crew. Again noted with Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line had nary an iota of the “glory of war” glam and glitz. Neither does U. I appreciated seeing how beat up the crew was. War’s never about charm. When this movie was released it was on its own. Not every action/war movies needs a “message.” The mission alone speaks volumes to us civvies, if we pay attention. Since U was “based on actual events” any head-scratching, speechifying or sloganeering would not fit in. Hell, even though this film had a “happy ending,” there wasn’t much to be happy about.

Relieved maybe. I had no fingernails after watching U.


The Material Condition…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s a solid, straightforward action movie with a great cast. No muss, no fuss. A Saturday afternoon movie. Call it a cinematic shore leave.


The Scuttlebutt…

  • “Everything’s in German!” Well, duh!
  • Um, I don’t believe that conventional crockery were ever used on subs (EG: Navy mugs lack handles).
  • The mock shield reveal. Ugly, ain’t it?
  • Zippos are temperamental.
  • “How wise is that, Lieutenant?” “Not very.”
  • It took me, like, two-thirds into the movie to notice Tyler wearing the Captain’s hat. Guess I was too caught up elsewhere.
  • The ring exchange.
  • No submariner would ever be so reckless with firearms as illustrated here.
  • It’s still hard to believe Paxton is gone. Sorely missed.
  • “Keep working.”
  • One would think more than just one of the crew knew German.

Forward…

Why the heck are we reading about some doofy rom-com starring Diane Keaton and Mandy Moore?

Because I Said So!


 

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