10,000 Nazis Under the Sea
I’ve given it some thought and decided one of the things that is sorely missing from the plethora of dull, second-string turkeys we’ve been getting at the movies lately is obvious. What we need is an old-fashioned, action-packed, nail-biting World War II submarine epic. You know, like Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot , Dick Powell’s The Enemy Below, with Robert Mitchum, or Robert Wise’s Run Silent , Run Deep, with Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster-one of those underwater suspense dramas full of periscopes and torpedoes and enemy convoys and only minutes to live or find an ocean grave. The void is now filled with U-571 , a terrifyingly real tale of undersea adventure set in the cold, dark depths of the fathomless Atlantic; it grabs you by the throat and doesn’t ease up until the final credits begin to roll. Directed with maximum fury and unbearable tension by Jonathan Mostow, U-571 is one of the surprise hits of the new year. At the end of the packed screening I attended, the audience was cheering.
The year is 1942, Hitler has dispatched German submarines to the east coast of America, and the U.S. Navy has been powerless to crack the U-boat codes that are destroying scores of Allied ships. This is the story of a crew of American sailors on a dangerous secret mission to disguise one of their own boats as a German sub in order to locate and board another German sub containing the vital Enigma machines and decoding devices necessary to win the war. It’s a Trojan horse operation that almost works under the command of a brave and honored skipper, played by Bill Paxton, but one thing goes wrong.
Captain Paxton and his crew reach the German boat, confiscate the code books and the Enigma machine and, like all humane Americans, try to transfer the prisoners to their own vessel, but in the middle of the operation the daring plan backfires. The U.S. sub is destroyed, forcing a handful of survivors back on board the foreign sub, where all the operating procedures are in German. With only one torpedo left, no defense system, the captain dead and most of the engines busted, the survivors set course for the friendly coast of England with an inexperienced lieutenant (Matthew McConaughey) as the new skipper. As the sub passes through German waters, it’s one terrifying close call after another. Attacked by enemy dive bombers from the air and a Nazi destroyer underwater, the skipper knows if the torpedoes don’t kill them, the shock waves will. It’s a great role for Mr. McConaughey, who becomes a leader by accident and is forced to either blow up the destroyer or make sure none of his men survive to be captured.
Credit the director for avoiding clichés (no moonlight exchanges on the bridge to peruse the meaning of life and death) and building maximum tension in the claustrophobic chambers of what really looks like the bowels of a submarine. It’s remarkable that so little of the action is shot in those usually annoying close-ups that plague movies filmed in tight enclosures. You actually know what is happening everywhere at once, and the blood and panic becomes your own. This requires great acting, and the task force assembled for the job performs admirably. The ensemble work is of the first order.
It’s a shame to lose Bill Paxton so early because his strength gives the film so much of its center (and what’s a Navy film without a captain everybody loves?), as well as Jon Bon Jovi and David Keith, but a finely tuned cast takes over with guts and brio. Harvey Keitel is marvelous as the oldest man on board, a veteran of World War I who knows how to follow orders from anyone who outranks him, even a rookie he mistrusts. The excellent Jake Weber, who stole Meet Joe Black right out from under Brad Pitt as the snobby, rejected “other guy,” is memorable as the unshakable intelligence officer who masterminds the rendezvous with the stranded German sub that goes haywire. And the younger sailors, barely out of high school and never dreaming they could land in such a dire situation on their first assignment, are played by a tight ensemble, each with his own personality, all depending on instinct for survival, doing the job they were trained for under stress. Jack Noseworthy is especially good as the radioman who studied German at Brown University, and so is T.C. Carson as the cook and the only black man on the vessel.
An added plus is the set by Götz Weidner, who designed Das Boot and knows the territory. Although the story is fictional, it is based on several historic incidents involving the recovery of actual Enigma machines and coding devices in the North Atlantic that changed the course of the war, and the film is dedicated to the heroes who lost their lives at sea on similar missions. In the end, only seven men are still alive in a lifeboat, and they’re the bravest sailors ever depicted.
My one grouse is that the film does not match photos of the terrific actors with the roles they play so convincingly. As the credits rolled, people all around me were asking, “Which one was Jon Bon Jovi?” “Who played the newlywed guy who lost his life before he consummated his own marriage?” These are new faces worth seeing again. Big mistake not to identify them. Otherwise, U-571 is one whale of an action picture that cracks you like a raw egg. A better film about war beneath the ocean has not been made.
Deflowered in the Attic
Sofia Coppola, daughter of legendary director Francis Ford Coppola, was such a disaster playing Mary Corleone in Godfather III it was the end of her acting career. Now, however, in her debut as writer-director of a strange, poetic film called The Virgin Suicides , Ms. Coppola is more of a chip off the old block. She has a dark, uncompromising vision and much promise.
The Virgin Suicides , based on a bizarre novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, is a lurid, fascinating parable about five beautiful sisters, ranging in age from 13 to 17, who live in a suburban town in Michigan and who all kill themselves, leaving no end of grief, confusion and mystery for their friends and neighbors.
The five Lisbon girls are objects of desire and daydreams for the boys in town, but they are all unattainable, thanks to two parents who seem like obvious candidates for the loony bin. Dad (James Woods, on a busman’s holiday from his usual psycho roles) is a wimpy high-school math teacher with no communication skills who isolates himself from reality in a world of model airplanes. Mom (Kathleen Turner) is a strict, implacable shrew who decorates her house with religious statues and Jesus paintings and dishes out strict punishments to her girls instead of compassion. While Dad talks to plants and Mom goes quietly haywire, their beautiful daughters form a bond of secret camaraderie that is later interpreted as a suicide pact.
When the oldest and most delectable Lisbon daughter, Lux (played by the ripe, blossoming Kirsten Dunst) is finally allowed to attend a school dance, she succumbs to the charms of the hunky campus heel (Josh Hartnett), who ruins her virginity and deserts her on the football field to make her way home at dawn, her prom dress in shreds. Chaos results. After the girls are taken out of school and locked up by their loopy mother, their only contact with the outside world is through mail-order catalogues and four younger neighborhood boys who try to help them with secret messages and flashlight signals. But the girls are on a collision course with self-destruction that haunts the town for years to come.
Thirteen-year-old Cecilia, the one who goes to a shrink (Danny DeVito, looking alarmingly like Gene Shalit), dies first, by throwing herself from a balcony and landing on a spiked fence. One by one, the others follow suit, as the boys in the town make vain attempts to apply amateur psychology. (Ms. Dunst descends into a secret life of promiscuity while the boys watch through binoculars.) But eventually everything ends tragically, plunging troubled adolescents into an obsession with death that becomes an allegory of lost innocence.
Ms. Coppola films this sordid fairy tale with a lush eye for metaphor; the girls are like the sirens of mythology, luring besotted men to the rocks. Watching the world from their balcony prison, they are Rapunzels in distress, longing for rescue. As they waste away from the poison within their own inner sanctum, their doom is paralleled by their favorite trees dying of Dutch elm disease in the front yard. Obviously inspired by her father’s movies, Ms. Coppola does interesting things with camera movements and light, the darkest events lit with almost-theatrical spots of bright, hazy colored gels.
The film does not romanticize teenage suicide. The Lisbon sisters are more like elusive phantoms of youthful fantasy, whose brief, incendiary lives are the stuff of folklore. In creating a film of startling originality as delicate as it is disturbing, Ms. Coppola has also created a niche for herself as a filmmaker with exceptional flair.