There's a lot to be said for the classic World War II action-adventure film, which is what "U-571" is, and it doesn't let us down. It would be wrong to compare it to "Das Boot," which was the story of the life of a submarine and its crew, because here the titular submarine is only by accident the central figure. Like its prototypes, "U-571" doesn't bother with things like character delineation or personality analysis. The closest we come to understanding what makes Matthew McConaughey tick is the photo we see of his dog, taped to the mirror over his submarine bunk. It's the only photo there.
The story is perfectly serviceable. McConaughey, as Lieutenant Tyler, the Executive Officer on a submarine, has been denied a command of his own by his captain, Bill Paxton, because Paxton feels he's too kind to his crew and won't be able to make the hard decisions that a real captain has to make. So in the first five minutes we know that in the course of this film Tyler will emerge in full command. That's okay; it's what fed a generation of war movies, and it can still work, depending on how well the plot and action are handled.
Their sub is sent out on a secret mission. They are to intercept a crippled Nazi U-boat in the middle of the Atlantic, which happens to be waiting for a supply sub to come and repair it. They are to board the sub posing as the repair crew, capture or kill the crew, and take away with them the sub's Enigma coding machine, a German invention that has effectively kept the Allies from intercepting military intelligence. Without giving anything away, the film is the story of what happens when they try to carry out their mission.
It's a good story, and director Jonathan Mostow, who wrote the script as well, has handled it with amazing flair and sureness. His camera glides up and down the length of cramped submarine quarters, and with the exception of a couple of exterior shots that were obviously made in a studio tank the film is believable from beginning to end. Naturally there are moments of high tension, when pipes burst under pressure and gauges break, when depth charges burst and men cringe, but we expect them and they work. Poor Harvey Keitel, as the old salt Chief Petty Officer, does have one embarrassing line to read, when he's ordered to take the sub down to 160 meters. Keitel must then respond, presumably for the benefit of Americans who have no idea what a meter is, and not for the benefit of a trained submarine crew, "Sir, that's more than 500 feet!" My own careful research shows that it is in fact 525.73 feet, and in the movie, gauges do in fact burst when the sub gets there.
The film doesn't allow for any real acting, but I am impressed with the choreography of movement by the actors in cramped spaces, by the choice of shots and camera placement, by the film editing, and particularly the sound editing. There are action sequences that have obviously been built up out of hundreds and hundreds of shots, some just two or three frames long (a frame is one-twenty-fourth of a second), and then enriched by a bold selection of extraordinary sounds, including the ominous high screech of metal on metal that I don't recall hearing in other films of this type.
"U-571" promises only to give us excitement and action, and it doesn't let us down. It has no pretensions to profound meaning or social comment, even though it has the requisite black Mess Steward who becomes a major player in the later action; as we know, the armed forces were segregated at the time, and non-whites were only allowed to cook and clean. The film has other goals, and meets them handily.