U-571: well-executed but troubling wartime historical revisionism (2000 in Film #16)

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This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of April 21st, Jonathan Mostow’s U-571

U-571 is a film perhaps better remembered for the dangers of playing too fast and loose with established history, particularly wartime history, than for the quality of Jonathan Mostow’s movie itself.

The plot, which sees Matthew McConaughey’s untested American lieutenant forced to seize command of the titular German u-boat, the U-571, during a daring mission to capture the Enigma code breaking machine which allowed Alan Turing and his Bletchley Park boffins in the United Kingdom turn the tide of World War Two, stoked enough ire to reach even the House of Commons, the seat of the British government. Labour MP Brian Jenkins called it an “affront” to the British sailors who *actually* retrieved the Enigma machine in such dangerous conditions, and ruling Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed at the time. “We hope that people realise these are people that, in many cases sacrificed their lives in order that this country remained free”.

While cinema plays an important role in our culture and society, it is rare that a Hollywood film designed as popcorn entertainment gets onto Prime Minister’s Questions, such was the frustration by government officials when U-571 arrived in the UK in June. The true story behind the events of Mostow’s film—in which the British vessel HMS Bulldog (as British a naval command could ever be called) who disabled and seized German submarine U-110 to retrieve the device, risking their lives in the process—is paid a sort-of lip service at the end of U-571’s credits, in which the film admits it was ‘inspired’ by true events, but the damage would have been done. For millions of Americans, history would have been revised by Mostow’s film.

And by no means one of the box-office heavy hitters of the year 2000, U-571 doubled its budget in receipts and stands, up to this point, as one of the more successful debut entries of the year. People turned out for this. People would have heard what it had to say.

If we previously saw Rules of Engagement as a liberal-minded, if ultimately toothless, attempt of American cinema to confront its demons in terms of war and foreign policy at the turn of a new century, U-571 is more of a conservative effort to do the opposite.

Just a few years before Michael Bay’s powerfully and painfully jingoistic depiction of Pearl Harbor, the seismic attack by the Japanese on the Hawaiian naval base that brought America into the Second World War, U-571 works hard to try and establish American naval superiority in revisionist history. The British may have cracked the Enigma code in the real world but you try finding a Brit anywhere in this film. It’s like America’s closest wartime allies have been entirely, and weirdly, airbrushed from the past. Co-writer David Ayer even, some years later, admitted the whole thing was mistaken in attempting to pass off British successes as American wartime glories:

It was a distortion… a mercenary decision to create this parallel history in order to drive the movie for an American audience. Both my grandparents were officers in World War Two, and I would be personally offended if somebody distorted their achievements.

Ayer is likely onto something in his description of U-571 being ‘mercenary’, because everything about the film is designed to appeal to a brawny, action-orientated sense of American superiority. There is little nuance and just as little substance, with Mostow’s lens focused more directly and heavily on the set-pieces of naval missions, sneak attacks on German forces, sinking u-boats and, toward the end, the deliberate tension of pinging sonar and the wait for exploding depth charges. It isn’t quite The Enemy Below but it sees itself in a similar wheelhouse, updated for the post-90’s blockbuster crowd who expect suspense and spectacle rolled into one.

And oddly enough, had U-571 delivered on both, it might well have gotten away with how it tramples over historical fact, but it ends up being a remarkably average film given the remarkable subject matter and real-life peril the story depicts. McConaughey plays the central role of Lt Tyler entirely straight, exuding less a sense of charisma than he does dull intensity. Mostow’s screenplay has at its core Tyler’s story of proving his worth as a commanding officer, after the late Bill Paxton’s Captain refuses him a command at the beginning, leaving Tyler to his fill his absent role once they seize control of the titular German boat. You can see his arc coming a mile away, and the necessary beats to follow it, but it does ground the film in a recognisable character through-line.

Tyler’s story works as a simplistic parallel for U-571 as a whole. It feels like a film attempting to prove its veracity, and its legitimacy, as much as Tyler does in terms of becoming a naval commander. The 90’s questioned the hagiographic historical role the Americans played in World War Two in various ways – films such as Saving Private Ryan which brutally displayed the personal cost of the conflict, allegories such as Star Trek: Deep Space Nine which tested our legacy of the war, and The X-Files leads the charge of conspiracy-angled work that overtly suggests dark American misdeeds in the shadow of wartime cloud their established 20th century role as ‘saviours’ of Western civilisation from Nazism and Communism. Rules of Engagement questioned a few weeks ago if American morality in war still exists, or has ever existed. U-571 firmly wants its audience to believe “yes it does, we have always been the good guys, and we always will be”.

It is a simplistic approach but then U-571 is a simplistic film, one not without aspects of merit. Mostow is a solid pair of directorial hands, having previously helmed the tense late-90’s thriller Breakdown, and he would later go on to wield the behemoth that is the underrated Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. He knows how to execute a set-piece and U-571 employs good production design and practical effects, for the most part, to give the film a sense of sturdiness and place. There is little wrong with the film on an aesthetic level – the problem are ground up, with a script that ebbs and flows, allows for little solid characterisation of a decent supporting cast (including Harvey Keitel and, no I’m not making this up, Jon Bon Jovi) and weaves a predictable yarn.

In the end, your enjoyment of U-571 depends on whether you can compensate for the wild historical inaccuracy of the whole thing. Two decades on, in a world rapidly losing touch with fact and truth, it’s not something I can make peace with.

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

3 – Down to You

4 – Eye of the Beholder

5 – Scream 3

6 – The Beach

7 – The Whole Nine Yards

8 – Wonder Boys

9 – The Next Best Thing

10 – Mission to Mars

11 – Erin Brockovich

12 – Romeo Must Die

13 – The Road to El Dorado

14 – Rules of Engagement

15 – 28 Days

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