FF40 - U-571

Intro by John Roderick

Submarine films are among our favorites. Of all the war film subgenres, the constraints of a submarine film are often the perfect recipe for an ensemble success. They don't require that you build big sets or get a bunch of old tanks running or find 10 copies of the precisely correct Thompson submachine gun so that nuges like me won't cry in our Metamucil about how the bullet casings were wrong. You just build a cramped set out of radiator pipes and Volkswagen speedometers and then you spray steam and french-fry oil all over a few great actors and then you rock the set back and forth while you shake the camera up and down and you have the actors lurch around like they're on Star Trek. Also: One guy has to drown to save everyone else, but that's it.

U-571 is such a turkey within this simple framework that watching it qualifies you for hazardous duty pay. I say this with no relish, but this film holds the distinction of having been denounced on the floor of the UK parliament by no less than the Prime Minister Tony Blair with such vehemence, that it precipitated a written apology from President Clinton. Okay, I say this all with considerable relish. The screenwriter David Ayer later issued a general apology to the world for his script and said he wouldn't write it again and then he drank Hemlock on Byron's grave. If other screenwriters would own their mistakes with as much dignity!

Let me say: This film was popular at the box office and critically lauded, which is further evidence that neither yardstick is meaningful in the slightest. Sure: Maybe you enjoyed this movie and readily consumed two pork chops, washed it down with a growler of happy homebrew, but in that case you are demonstrably a dingdong and probably you know it about yourself if you search your feelings.

So: We open on a German U-boat. Captain G√ľnther Wassner is a lovable non-Nazi German officer. He establishes his non-Naziness early on because the German Navy is widely understood by moviegoers to be fighting for an entirely different Germany full of emotionally vulnerable aristocrats dressed in white felt, rather than the bad leather-trenchcoated monocle Germany that the Nazis like. A British destroyer damages his boat, "Tally ho!" and now he has to wait adrift at sea for a repair crew and resupply, before he can continue prosecuting the battle of the Atlantic. But the distress-call the Germans send is intercepted by American spy-masters who see their opportunity to capture a war changing working German Enigma machine.

Now at this point I paused the film, I went downstairs, I poured myself a stiff drink of scotch and water, I went outside, lit a cigarette and then poured my drink in the garden because I quit drinking twenty years ago and then I threw my cigarette at the neighbors dog and went back inside to continue watching the movie.

You see: This is the actual plot of a part of the actual war: To capture an Enigma machine. It went down a certain way, involving certain known and named people at unknown and recorded time. It did not involve Matthew McConaughey, let's just say. The scriptwriter David Ayer, rest in peace, could have just morphed this idea into, say, a special codebook or a Maltese Falcon or The Ark of the Covenant or Helen of Troy or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, but no! Basically, he wrote a World War II movie where the French Resistance invented nuclear weapons and they destroyed Nagasaki with a bomb called Le Petite Poulet by riding it there from Indochina on a bicyclette.

For those of you who don't chew on every subplot of World War II like a rawhide bone full of peanut butter, the German Enigma was an encryption machine believed to be uncrackable. The allies wanted desperately to capture one without the Germans thinking we had captured one. If they realized we had it, they would just have changed the code and we'd be back to square one. It was a real problem. The real life solution was the product of years of hard work on the part of a group of Polish cryptographers and various computer nerds in England, you probably saw that movie, and a couple of Royal Navy raiding parties all of which makes it really hard for Hollywood to turn into a movie.

Enter Bill Paxton and his executive officer Matthew McConaughey, the two actors I would cast immediately if I were making a movie about a pot dealer and Ultimate Frisbee coach from Cal State Fullerton who moved to Playa del Carmen and opened a beach bar called As The Worm Turns after his wife ran off with an Olympic javelin bronze medalist. Once his father, the spicy churro king of Santa Barbara is killed by Siberians, his estranged older brother Ron arrives in Mexico with a Frisbee made of cocaine and a plan to avenge their father's death and get both their wives back by winning an Olympic medal of their own… in frisbee.

Now that would be an amazing movie and maybe we could even work the Enigma machine into it! But back to this film: Like every executive officer in every submarine movie McConaughey was passed over for promotion because his C.O. Paxton didn't think he was ready to make life and death decisions. Together they put together a crack team of whoever happened to be standing around and steamed toward the Germans in their own submarine. Meanwhile, Harvey Keitel was there in the role of chief of acting in a completely different and maybe better other movie.

But in short Paxton was killed and McConaughey finally got to sit in the big chair and have a zillion depth charges dropped on him while he mustered the guts to order one of his men to die of drowning. They escaped with the U-boat and the enigma machine and single-handedly won the war for America and all those other grubby people elsewhere who also were apparently fighting the Germans also. And then the French air force flew them to the moon.

Historical fiction is fine, even great, but if you are rewriting history it's nice to have a good reason for doing so. It would also be nice if your torpedo tube of submarine film tropes added up to a good movie. I think maybe Adam liked it? I don't know. She'll go all the way to the bottom if we don't stop her! Today on Friendly Fire: U-571.

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