U-571, a fictional story inspired by several different WWII incidents, follows a group of sailors who are trying to capture the German’s Engima code machine, so that they can find out where the U-boats are headed in time to prevent them from sinking the Allies’ supply ships.
Minute for minute, it is one of the most tense and exciting war movies ever made, with the crew on the brink of disaster and often several disasters at once, for most of the movie’s running time. Indeed, it is so busy being exciting that it is sometimes impossible to tell what is going on, especially since the sets are so dark, drippy, and claustrophobic and the dialogue so jargon-crammed. Still, it is more than a mindless testosterone explosion-fest. As Lt. Tyler (Matthew McConaughey) learns, it is not enough to be brave, loyal, and honorable.
As the movie begins, he is bitter at not having been recommended for command. The Captain (Bill Paxton) explains that it is not enough that Tyler is willing to give his life for the men. He has to be willing to order them to give their lives, and then he has to be able to live with the consequences. And he as to be able to do it “without pause, without reflection, or you’ve got no business being a submarine captain.” Later, when Tyler and his men have taken over the U-Boat, and his first orders are tentative, Chief Klough (Harvey Keitel), the non-commissioned officer who has seen it all, takes him aside to tell him that “The skipper always knows what to do, whether he does or not.” Tyler is confronted with decision after decision, forced to chose quickly and credibly among nothing but long shots. 1234567890
Submarines immediately grab our attention. They are isolated and vulnerable. Once they leave the dock, they become a world of their own, with no time to wait for orders when they get into trouble. In movies from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” to “Operation Petticoat,” “Crimson Tide” and “The Hunt for Red October” we see men who must make life and death decisions without time or information, and we get to think, as we lean back and eat our popcorn, about how we would fare 100 kilometers below the surface. We get to see some terrific examples of problem- solving and moral choices.
Families who see this movie should discuss how we develop the foundation of values and experience to enable us to make those choices. They should also talk about the difference between fiction and reality. The setting and the references to historical incidents like the capture of the Enigma may lead people who watch this movie to believe that it was based on a true story. It is not. It is based on pieces of several stories, mostly involving British, not American, sailors and soldiers, and it is heavily fictionalized, at times bearing more relation to Star Wars than it does to history.
The movie does give credit to the extraordinary heroism of British and American servicemen who succeeded in getting the Engima, by thanking them at the end of the movie. Some older kids will want to know more about this. They will enjoy Capturing Enigma: How HMS Petard Seized the German Naval Codes by Stephen Harper, Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker’s War, 1941-1945, by Leo Marks, and Station X: Decoding Nazi Secrets, by Michael Smith. Families may also want to talk about the treatment of the movie’s one black character, Eddie (Terrence “T.C.” Carson), clearly overqualified for the only position on the ship for which he is eligible – he serves the crew’s food. At this time, of course, the service was still segregated.
Parent should know that this is an exceptionally intense and scary movie. Many people are brutally killed, including characters that the audience comes to care about.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy other submarine movies, including Crimson Tide, Das Boot, and The Hunt for Red October.