Jonathan Mostow succeeds in his goal of making an old-fashioned World War II submarine movie. Too bad the entire story is bogus.

Published October 24, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Directed by Jonathan Mostow
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Bill Paxton, Harvey Keitel
Universal; widescreen (2.35:1)
Extras: Director's commentary, making-of featurettes, trailer

"I wanted this to have a tremendous sense of authenticity," says writer-director Jonathan Mostow of his big-budget submarine yarn "U-571." And, indeed, the movie displays a fine eye for detail in everything from the creation of actual-size World War II-vintage subs and costumes to the scary effects of depth charges on those beneath the waves. (The digital sound on the DVD is especially helpful in this regard.) Were it not for Mostow's decision to devote himself to the Oliver Stone school of historical filmmaking, "U-571" would be a fitting tribute to the young sailors who risked their lives in the last decent war.

As it stands, this is a troublesome movie in that audiences might come away thinking the Americans performed deeds that were in fact done by others. But more on that in a moment.

"U-571" tells the story of an American submarine dispatched to intercept a crippled German U-boat in the Atlantic. The goal is to make off with an Enigma coding machine and thus tap into German communications. The requisite melodrama comes in the form of executive officer Matthew McConaughey, saddled with a spectacularly bad haircut, wrestling with whether he has the right stuff to handle a sub of his own. Capt. Bill Paxton doesn't think so, but, of course, he'll be out of the way soon enough and we'll all get to see for ourselves. The twist lies in the way McConaughey and his crew get trapped on the German sub and have to make it back home without giving themselves away (thus negating the advantage of having captured an Enigma). A meddlesome German destroyer has other ideas.

In his DVD commentary, Mostow makes clear that he isn't interested in the you-are-there squalor of "Das Boot" -- arguably the finest sub picture ever made. Instead, he's keen to pay homage to the likes of "Run Silent, Run Deep" and "Destination Tokyo." Audiences, in turn, are treated to every cliché in the book, from the way the crew gazes up with worried expressions as enemy vessels pass overhead to the "Will she take it?" dive to uncharted depths. "My goal was really to make an old-fashioned World War II submarine movie," Mostow says. On that count, it's fair to say he succeeded. This is exciting stuff.

The quibbles come with Mostow's having gone to such trouble to make "U-571" appear realistic when the entire story is bogus. In an age when many if not most people get their history lessons from movies and TV, this is a potentially serious issue. The takeaway of "U-571" is that the Americans were responsible for snatching away an Enigma and thus turning the tide of the war in the Atlantic. It's not until the closing credits that Mostow tips his hand and reveals that the film is dedicated "to the bravery of Allied sailors and officers who risked their lives capturing Enigma materials from U-boats." Specifically, credit is given to the HMS Bulldog, the HMS Aubretin and the HMS Petard. If viewers don't know that these vessels were in fact British, well, too bad.

"Things like this really happened," Mostow says, although, he adds, they may not have happened "precisely in the way I show in this movie." Close, in other words, but no cigar.

By David Lazarus

David Lazarus covers business and technology for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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