Bucking the hideous trend of heaping on layers of backstory and unnecessarily contriving character conflict, U-571 simply shows the story of sailors rising to the occasion in the midst of a harrowing situation. Writer/director Jonathan Mostow wisely gives minimal attention to the lives of our characters before their adventure begins, briefly and concisely showing the turmoil that might betray the characters later. Immediately, they are plunged into the North Atlantic, depth charges exploding around them. There is no need for invented tension in that circumstance.
It’s the beginning of WWII and Lt. Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey) wants nothing more than to skipper his own vessel, but his captain, Lt. Cmdr. Mike Dahlgren (Bill Paxton) has passed him over, feeling he isn’t ready for the post. Before they have time to argue, they are called into service, a top secret mission to recover the Enigma coding device from a stranded German U-boat.
Dahlgren, Tyler and officers Lt. Emmett (Jon Bon Jovi) and Ensign Larson (Matthew Settle) are commanded by the Admiral to assist Marine major Coonan (David Keith) and Lt. Hirsch (Jake Weber) to commandeer the U-boat. Their crew of enlisted men, including Chief Klough (Harvey Keitel), race against a time to beat a Nazi destroyer to the coordinates. Disguised as German sailors, their sub even given a Nazi facelift, they board the U-571 in a rainstorm and pretty handily take the craft. Moments later, however, all hell breaks lose and Lt. Tyler finds himself unexpectedly in command of the submarine, in hostile waters and incommunicado. Forced to become the captain he always wanted to be, Tyler orders his crew to dive in the face of the enemy destroyer, instigating an elaborate, explosive, claustrophobic game of cat-and-mouse.
A gripping tale of heroism, courage, duty and honor, U-571 is the greatest war picture since Saving Private Ryan, and on many levels, even better. Working with director of photography Oliver Wood and production designers William Ladd Skinner and Gotz Weidner (the designer of Das Boot as well), Mostow creates the breathtakingly cinematic world of the submarine, the pressure at 160 meters felt by the audience as well. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention composer Richard Marvin’s incredible score, a driving force of brass and cymbal crashes.
U-571 boasts powerful performances from the cast, but this is truly McConaughey’s finest achievement to date. With the collected restraint of a Naval officer, McConaughey delivers.
They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore.