Sometimes less character exposition is more
Universal Pictures
Directed by Jonathan Mostow
USA, 2000
One of the most common--and probably most accurate--critiques about not-so-good movies is that the characters are not fleshed out, which leaves the audience with no one to care about and consequently no emotional investment in the film. So it's a little surprising when a movie like U-571 comes along: a taut World War II submarine thriller focusing on a handful of ciphers, men who are defined in the barest of terms--yet, paradoxically, holding the audience's interest almost from the first frame.

In reality, there's no paradox here. U-571 merely heeds the maxim that less is more. As the movie opens, German U-boat U-571 sinks an allied vessel, but not without incurring heavy damage, reducing their speed to a crawl. Director Jonathan Mostow then wastes no time getting the story underway: during their shore leave, the Allied crew of an old S-33 sub find themselves hastily assembled for a mission. Disguised as a U-boat, they are to rendezvous with U-571, capture it, and steal its Enigma machine, with which the Allies will finally be able to decode German communications.

Since people don't like paying eight dollars for half-hour movies, something goes wrong. Right after capturing U-571, another U-boat arrives on the scene and destroys the S-33, leaving less than ten people alive and stripping away two levels of command. Lt. Andrew Tyler (Matthew McConaughey) now has to figure out how to get everyone--and, more importantly, the Enigma--back into Allied territory, piloting a damaged U-boat with instruments almost no one can read.

In the few minutes before the action, we're told everything we need to know about our heroes: for instance, Tyler is miffed because he was passed over for command of his own sub; Chief Klough (Harvey Keitel) is more experienced than anyone, and serves as a voice of wisdom; Mazzola (Erik Palladino) always says what's on his mind and talks too much.

It's just enough. We have what we need to understand where each character is coming from, without getting bogged down in pointless details. We don't know about their girls back home, their unresolved conflicts with their fathers, or their troubled pasts. Nor should we. Consider the alternative: Armageddon spent at least half an hour covering the triangle between Bruce Willis, Liv Tyler, and Ben Affleck. Did it really add to the film? Not in the least. Armageddon was an asteroid disaster film; anything that didn't have to do the big rock hurtling toward Earth was superfluous. Any so-called "character exposition" scene with those three could have been excised and no one would have felt the difference.

U-571, being a submarine movie, needs only a shade of character definition; the real appeal of any submarine movie doesn't come from the individual actors, but from the nature of submarine combat: claustrophobic, tense, and either anxious with anticipation and fear or frantic with overwhelming chaos. In this, U-571 succeeds admirably, with scenes of armchair-gripping action separated only by moments of nail-biting tension. And without the need to interrupt for any character-defining histrionics, Mostow paces the action just so--the highs and the lows flow naturally, without the contrived roller-coaster ride so many summer blockbusters strive for.

There were two touches I found particularly welcome--both of which I've seen before but rarely, if ever, together in the same film. First was the depiction of the seamen as young men who, in anticipation of and during combat, are quite plainly scared, doing their job out of a mix of duty and self-preservation. It's not said out loud; it's written on their faces. I can't pretend to know what military combat is like, but acknowledging the mortal fear that must be every soldier's greatest friend and enemy brings me a step closer. Second, and related to the first, was the depiction of the Germans as soldiers like the Americans: young, scared, and doing their job. None of them were the usual faceless Nazis, a crutch which gets increasingly tired as the years go by. I'm glad it wasn't used here.

It's thoughtful elements like these which, far more than deliberate character exposition set pieces, bring a film to life, making even the two-dimensional characters of U-571 worth rooting for. Purists have decried U-571 for the liberties taken with history--it's a patchwork of various Allied missions to recover Enigmas, and makes no mention of the spearheading British effort--but the end result is still a damn fine movie.

A Critical Eye exclusive (April 19, 2000)
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