A beefy, crunchy sound mix can certainly add to the impact of a film, but I’ve never seen a movie as dependent on a fancy sound system as the submarine thriller U-571. I have a foolproof test for such audio spectacles: If you saw it on a 15-inch TV screen with a dinky mono speaker, would it still be a compelling film? Interesting characters? Good story well-told? U-571 flunks on all counts.
It’s not that this is a disgraceful movie — it’s the sort of film for which the noncommittal phrase “It’s okay for what it is” was coined. And what is it? Take away the god-of-thunder sound mix and you have a historical action flick, sometimes competent, occasionally tense, more often inert. But how hard is it to work up suspense by putting a group of men in a tin can hundreds of meters below the surface, then setting off explosions all around them? The movie that did all this to a T, of course, was 1982’s classic Das Boot, which was more a study of personalities under stress than a war story. U-571 is like a hyper Internet-age remix of Das Boot without, y’know, all that boring characterization. It’s Das Boot stripped for action.
The movie sets up a tentative hero — young Lt. Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey), who wants to run his own sub but has no command experience. If you sense early on that the film is going to be about how Tyler proves his mettle, you’re half right — U-571 will also be about selfless sacrifice, pulling together as a team, and lots of jiggly camerawork whenever the sub takes a hit. Only the ship’s chief (Harvey Keitel) has any faith in Tyler; he even gives Tyler pointers on how to act as though he has all the answers even when he doesn’t (which is often).
These men are part of a mission based glancingly on actual World War II events. The Germans have a secret code to communicate with each other; the Allies haven’t been able to crack it, so the plan is to steal the Germans’ code machine from one of their subs. Tyler and his crew, posing as Germans, succeed in taking over the German sub, but then their own vessel is sunk by a German rescue ship. Now they have to get home in the leaky German sub they now occupy, hampered by destroyer ships, depth charges, and the most by-the-numbers script since Armageddon.
I suppose there’s something to be said for a movie that just goes in there and does the job. U-571 has almost no downtime; like Das Boot, it kicks off with a bit of R&R but quickly gets down to business. The trouble is, the movie is edited to within an inch of its life; there’s no room to breathe. And, aside from McConaughey and Keitel — that is to say, the stars — most everyone is interchangeable, so that when someone dies, you have only the vaguest sense who it was, much less why you should care. A scene in which a dead man is shot up to the surface as a distraction tactic underlines why most of the characters are there: to die for our entertainment.
The cheesy moments pile up. Tyler, of course, gains authority as the film goes on, or so the script tells us. You wouldn’t know it from McConaughey’s performance, though he valiantly foregoes his usual good-ole-boy grin; at times, he gets so grim he’s ready to recite beat poetry. When a young sailor bravely dies for the good of the ship, Tyler says, “He never gave up,” and the ship’s (and film’s) token black sailor validates him: “Neither did you, sir.” U-571 never gives up, either, but it’s a lot of Dolby sound and computer-generated fury signifying nothing.