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Dave's Other Movie Log

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U-571****

The relatively small but by no means insignificant body of films dealing with undersea warfare might be aptly termed a "sub"genre of the action film. True to tradition, U-571, directed by Jonathan Mostow who also collaborated on the screenplay with Sam Montgomery and David Ayer, starts with a bang when a U-boat is disabled in the North Atlantic and radios for help using the secret Enigma code. Meanwhile, back in the United States, naval authorities plot an audacious attempt to capture the Enigma machine--which has given the Germans a considerable advantage in attacking Allied forces on the high seas--by disguising one of their own subs as a U-boat and sending it out to intercept U-571. After the American sub is blown out of the water during the operation, the remaining crew members, led by the executive officer, Lieutenant Andrew Tyler, (Matthew McConaughey) find themselves stranded on the damaged German vessel, and the carefully laid plot begins to unravel with nighmare rapidity. Although the film contains a number of bravura action sequences that will keep the audience riveted to their seats, the key sequence in U-571 is a dramatic scene between Tyler and Lieutenant Commander Mike Dahlgren (Bill Paxton), the captain of the American sub, which occurs just after the sub has gotten underway. Tyler has expected to be assigned a command of his own but fails to receive one when Dahlgren refuses to recommend him for promotion. In an interview in his cabin, the captain praises Tyler's abilities as an officer and his sense of responsibility for protecting the men serving under him. Nevertheless, when Dahlgren asks Tyler whether he would you be willing to risk their lives if necessary and the latter falters, the captain announces that until the lieutenant can make that decision without hesitation, he will not be qualified to captain a sub. U-571 presents this judgment as a theorem and the remainder of the movie's action proceeds to demonstrate its validity with all the terrifying lucidity of a mathematical proof.

In its depiction of Lieutenant Tyler's transformation from competent officer into a commander worthy of the name, the film has interesting similarities with an earlier, estimable sub picture, Robert Wise's Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), in which an executive office who expects to be given the command of his ship is passed over in favor of a captain who has been relegated. But the executive officer in this case, Lieutenant Jim Bledsoe (Burt Lancaster) is no untested junior officer but a highly qualified and strong-willed man who is well-matched with old seadog Commander "Rich" Richardson (Clark Gable), and the drama reaches its highpoint when Bledsoe forcibly assumes command after Richardson has been injured and can no longer carry out his duties. As in many older war films, in Run Silent, Run Deep the  mental war of wills between the two principals occupies almost as much attention as the armed war between opposing military forces, But psychology only supplies a few vertebrae in the backbone of  U-571, which is an "action" film in the most absolute sense of the word, a dance of death in the deep in which choices quickly reduce to a minimum and everything depends upon knowing which decision to make at a given moment. In the way it rigorously focuses upon the consequences of having to make such always potentially fatal decisions , U-571 harks back to great action pictures of the early 1930's like Howard Hawks's The Dawn Patrol (1930) and John Ford's The Lost Patrol (1934). In it too, narrative logic and the logic of survival coincide, and the astonishing plot twists--for example, at the end when U-571 must fire its one remaining torpedo in order to stave off an attack by German destroyer that is bearing down upon it--are no mere devices to liven up the movie, but correspond to the way the stakes grow higher as the game continues. The fact that Tyler undergoes a metamorphosis as a result of living through this experience is the necessary consequence of a proposition which--just as in traditional logic--has no middle term: he must either defeat the predators or or go down himself in a disastrous defeat which would also entail the destruction of all his shipmates. Interestingly, in the way it emphasizes resoluteness of purpose and strength of will rather than mere physical prowess, U-571 approximates the spirit of the Hagakure as much as Ghost Dog does, an impression further heightened  by the appearance of Matthew McConaughey, whose lean and mean build, short haircut, bony aquiline features, and haunted visage truly endow him with the aura of a samurai. He is well abetted by the other actors, but Harvey Keitel's performance as Chief Klough is especially notable.   

Watching Saving Private Ryan when it came out a few years back made me aware how incredibly difficult it is to make a film about World War II today that does not immediately turn false from the first shot. When Lewis Milestone started making All Quiet on the Western Front in 1929, the  war was still a recent memory in the minds of the people who worked on the film--not to mention in the minds of movie audiences. It seems not unlikely that many of the extras who went over the top in the movie's extraordinary battle scenes had also really gone over the top in the  trenches of the western front.  But the end of World War II lies over fifty years in the past; the number of people who lived through the war as combatants dwindles with each passing year. Although I have vivid recollections of hearing news broadcasts about the beginning of the Korean War on the radio, the nearest thing to a memory of World War II in my mind is the return after the end of the war of my father's brother who had served on a ship in the Pacific . Even more problematic is the way the image of the war has been media-ted by the viewing of innumerable newsreels and documentaries such as Victory at Sea as well as a host of novels and motion pictures. Both Spielberg's film and Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line, which appeared shortly after, avoided that risk by taking a controlled, highly stylized stance toward their material, especially in their use of color. While Spielberg drained the colors out of Saving Private Ryan, giving it the look of faded combat footage, Malick used a hyperchromatic mise en scène in the battle sequences that selectively emphasized certain hues such as greens and blacks. But the visual style in both cases perfectly accords with the reflective treatment of the subject. Neither picture could be simply categorized as "anti-war," but both look at the conflict from the point of view of enlisted guys in the field who were doing the fighting--a far cry from Darryl Zanuck's miserable The Longest Day (1962) in which the assorted commanding officers behind the lines looked down upon the fighting as if they were godlike beings invested with superhuman powers.

Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line are works of moral complexity, the kind of complexity of vision that only becomes possible when a great event is re-viewed many years, or even decades later. Only Marcel Proust writing  over a decade after the fact, at the time of the First World War, could have evoked the Dreyfus Affair as he so effectively did in The Remembrance of Things Past. By contrast, U-571 goes for brutal simplicity; where those two films are works of reflection, it is a work of intelligenceA well-known witticism says that the phrase "military intelligence" is an oxymoron, but I can't imagine that anyone who has ever bothered to take a look at the history of military strategy would believe for a minute that great battles are usually decided by a mere stroke of luck. If it is true, as there is reason to conjecture, that intelligence itself grew out of the struggle for survival, then the logical thinking which plays a key role in such otherwise disparate activities as economics, games, and military strategy, far from being a mere tool to aid in problem solving, has an intimate relation with all three--and perhaps finds its culmination on the field of battle. (That this also says something about the limits of logic goes without saying.) Like its two predecessors, U-571 also has found a perfectly adequate visual style to express its schematic vision. From the very beginning, Mostow employs a highly mobile camera--choreographed by the skilled efforts of the director of photographer, Oliver Wood--whose movements only become jagged when all hell breaks out below. The enclosed space inside a sub has been in the past a great opportunity for production designers to show off their skills--as in Delmar Daves' Destination Tokyo (1944) or Run Silent, Run Deep--but Mostow, working inside an actual sub as a set, pushes the suffocating effect very far, reinforcing it with a palette of dark blues, greys, and blacks, only shattered here and there by shafts of white light. In the rare shots of the open sea in the later sequences of U-571, the audience may well feel they themselves have been released from the sub into the fresh air, particularly when the film aurally complements the claustrophobic visuals with an absolutely brilliant use of sound effects during the scenes in which U-571 is being attacked with depth charges. (For the record, the IMDb credits Jon Johnson as supervising sound editor, Ivan Sharrock as production sound mixer, and Gregg Landaker and Steve Maslow as mixers.)

At the conclusion of the propaganda piece Destination Tokyo, in which a submarine commanded by Cary Grant manages to sneak into Tokyo Bay, the voice over narration, after having saluted the men of the silent service, finishes with the equivocal injunction: "...and happy hunting!" Apparently it did not occur to anyone that by that reckless gesture the film was employing a slogan with whose ideological implications the Nazi's would have readily agreed. Precisely one of U-571's great strengths lies in refusing to moralize its story. This is not a struggle between good guys and bad guys, but between hunters and hunted. As Alfred Hitchcock irrefutably demonstrated in Lifeboat (1944), war itself does not create possibilities for moralizing of the kind Destination Tokyo shamelessly engages in, because war reduces everyone to the same level of struggling  for survival. The hunted who hope to survive cannot afford to offer themselves as sacrificial victims but have to be as cunning as their adversaries--which is hardly the same as resorting to their tactics. But to attempt to moralize the intrinsic immorality of armed conflict--as against attempting to reflectively analyze the moral implications of war as do Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line--is to throw the  door wide open to ideological falsification. No work of art can be immune from ideology given the present conditions of economic organization, but U-571 shows that a commercial motion picture can attempt to keep itself distant from the fruits of such dubious moralizing, just as Destination Tokyo shows how a film can recklessly compromise itself by fantasizing that its efforts are all in the name of the morally superior cause.  What Destination Tokyo unpardonably fails to point out is that the American subs are not hunting for the pleasure of hunting as were their adversaries, but for the sake of preventing the Axis subs from doing any more hunting--and given the stakes of the conflict, they have few choices in the means of carrying out that task. Dispensing with superfluous moral rationalizations in the way U-571 does is not the same thing as deconstructing the allure of the war film genre--it is a negative virtue and not a positive one, but a virtue nonetheless as the following example illustrates

Inevitably U-571 has been compared with Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot (1981). In many ways the later film could be viewed as a reply to the earlier one, although I would in no way want to suggest that Mostow set to intentionally do this in making U-571. First of all, I must honestly admit I am no fan of Petersen's movie, which I found both artistically and ideologically offensive. Where U-571 is a straightforward piece of narrative filmmaking tightly edited to 115 minutes by Wayne Wahrman, Das Boot, which takes three hours to wend its way through the waters, is an art film disguised as an action picture, with all the affectations of one of Werner Herzog's or Wim Wender's most pretentious opera. All that differentiates Petersen's movie from Nosferatu or The American Friend is that it replaces their gassy existential philosophizing with all the clichés of bad American war pictures. What must be said is that this turned out to be a brilliant commercial gamble by applying the highly mannered style of the New German Cinema with its slow pace and studied compositions to a genre that had belonged to Hollywood since the end of World War II. True, the Germans had made a couple of World War II pictures like Paul May's 08/15 or Bernhard Wicki's The Bridge (1959), but these were sombre, black and white variations on the "war is hell" topos, made on small budgets, and quite similiar to pre-Nazi pictures about World War I like G.W,Pabst's Westfront 1918 (1930). While some German art films like The Mystery of Kaspar Hauser or Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Marriage of Maria Braun had attracted a considerable following among art house patrons, Das Boot, especially in its dubbed version, showed the kind of boxoffice power that made industry executives sit up and take notice, resulting in an American contract for Petersen. (Once arrived in this country Petersen changed his strategy and started grinding out  American-style schlock like In the Line of Fire and Air Force One, undoubtedly wanting to be spared the fate of Wicki, who was brought to this country by Fox in the 1960's to direct--surprise!--a World War II spy picture starring Marlon Brando entitled Morituri [1965], which only dropped a bomb at the box office.)

The arty treatment Petersen gives war on the sea already raises some questions at the sticky point where aesthetics and morality tangentially come together. In and of itself, Das Boot's style is problematic. But a far more serious problem for me is the movie's attempt to "humanize" the characters by having them constantly making derogatory cracks about Hitler and the Nazi's, and by showing the captain and another officer refusing to give the "Heil Hitler" salute to the Gestapo in one scene. Someone might have been suicidal enough to risk his own life by such a flagrant public gesture of disobedience, but who would have been so mad as to have endangered the lives of his family and possibly friends by such an outrageous act? From the time of the Röhm purge in 1934, the Nazis had made it clear that there were no limits to how far they would go in settling scores. In one of the most effective moments in U-571, Lieutenant Hirsch (Jake Weber) tells Tyler that if they are captured he will have to kill his men as well as the two of them so that the Germans will not be able to torture them and learn vital information. That may be horrifying to audiences today to imagine, but it is far more accurate than anything that shows up in Das Boot. Whether intentionally or not, Petersen's movie is rubber-stamping the myth propagated by the right wing in Germany since the end of the war, the myth that the atrocities of the Third Reich were only committed by a handful of nasty Nazis who dragged along the rest of the country with them. In its most abominable scene, Das Boot shows its U-boat crew coming on deck after torpedoing a ship and looking on in horror as the survivors struggle in the water. But destroying human beings is what that U-boat and every other U-boat in the German navy had been doing since the beginning of World War II, and that episode is an insult to intelligence of any person who knows something about how the Germans fought the war. Although I think the analysis of the rise to power of the Nazis presented by Luchino Visconti in The Damned (1969) is more balmy than anything else, Visconti rightly saw that one of the Nazis' most diabolically brilliant inspirations was to draw as many people as possible into their machinations, effectively blurring the dividing line of moral responsibility forever. Still, decades later, quite a number of Germans have not been able to come to terms with this fact. It would be a matter of honesty as well as one of decency if the present leaders of  reunited German nation were willing to publicly admit that many, many people who were not part of the Gestapo, or the SS, or even NSDAP members, participated in crimes against humanity because of the pervasive influence exercised on virtually the entire populace by what Eugen Kogon called "The SS State"--an influence explicitly bolstered  by the ever present threat of physical liquidation. Nevertheless, it is only a few years back that an exhibition in Munich unleashed a furor by documenting atrocities perpetrated on civilians in occupied zones during the war by members of the Wehrmacht. It will mark the beginning of a new day when a mainstream German filmmaker directly confronts these still unanswered questions--and does not plead extenuating circumstances as Das Boot contemptibly does.

[Dave wishes to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Professor Cynthia Walk of the University of California at San Diego in writing this review.]

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E-mail Dave at daveclayton@worldnet.att.net
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