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'U-571': A Voyage to See

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 21, 2000


    'U-571' Matthew McConaughey (right) stars in "U-571." (Universal)
In "U-571," Jonathan Mostow's exciting World War II action-thriller, Lt. Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey), Lt. Pete Emmett (Jon Bon Jovi), Chief Klough (Harvey Keitel) and Ensign Larson (Matthew Settle), huddle in silence in their battered old submarine deep down in the Atlantic Ocean.

From above, depth charges are cascading down, soon to explode around them.

BAM! screams one. The men wince as one goes off. The sub rocks. BAM! goes another. Water pours in from some unseen wound in the submarine's hull. Sailors scramble to plug the leak. One direct hit – that's all it's going to take to drown these guys like rats.

While all this is happening, I have one thought: It's been too long! Call me a guy if you like. (I've heard worse, like "old man.") But the fact is, all submarine movies are cool, whether it's "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea," "Das Boot," "The Hunt for Red October," or "U-571."

In the movie, the Nazis have brought the war to the United States' watery front door, floating up and down the eastern seaboard at will.

The problem: The United States has been unable to crack the Germans' radio codes. So when the Americans pick up distress signals from a debilitated Nazi sub one day, they decide to send out a fake German rescue mission, and trick the crew into giving up its onboard decoding device. The point is to get the decoder before the crew has a chance to alert Berlin.

Retrofitting an old American sub to look like a U-boat, Tyler's crew – along with a few German-speaking Americans – heads out to "save" the Germans.

Of course, they run into problems. The biggest of all: The Nazi destroyer that discovers the U-boat is full of Americans. Can the Americans shoot down the destroyer's radio antenna before they send warning transmissions home? Can they survive the full fury of a depth-charge attack? You'll need to report to the nearest multiplex to find out.

The performances are commendable, particularly from McConaughey and Keitel. And the character subplots are passably involving, including an almost de rigueur relationship between Tyler and Lt. Commander Mike Dahlgren (Bill Paxton), the intimidating superior and father figure who pointedly refuses to promote Tyler.

But the real star of "U-571" is its sheer visceral atmosphere. This is about warfare at closer quarters, where the physical struggle of battle is right in your face.

You're painfully aware of the vessel's low-tech armaments and its structural weaknesses. And then there's the overwhelming task one sailor faces: holding his breath and diving underwater into the flooded torpedo shaft to fix the submarine's only remaining weapon and – okay, that's enough. If the joy of watching "U-571" isn't apparent by now, it's time for me to close this communique and signal the men to bring me back to the surface.

U-571 (PG-13, 110 minutes) – Contains some violence and overall intensity.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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