Norfolk, VA. - Movie reviews have always been to me like weather forecasts. Reviews are one person's opinion of something that may or may not hold true. I normally don't pay too much attention to them. But seldom have I read so many reviews on a movie that missed the point than for the epic U-571.
As I walked out of the theater I couldn't help but wonder how so many critics who obviously saw the movie, could have missed what this movie was really about.
I questioned the reviews not because they were wrong or misleading, but because I feel they omitted something. Something I feel is too great to be ignored.
Never mind whether the movie is a mirror image of the facts. The movie shows, in graphic detail, the horrors of the depths. It also paints a picture of how close a submarine crew can be in battle.
So why am I attempting to write a review of this particular movie? What's the difference between this movie and any other movie? It's actually quite simple. Let me explain.
I'm a surface Sailor. Some might say that's reason enough to write a review of a submarine movie. Maybe I could be less biased; after all, I don't really love submarines.
Having served on a battleship, a cruiser and an aircraft carrier, I have always thought those who went to sea, on the sea, were the heroes. For the better part of 17 years I have heard jokes about the difference between submarines and surface ships. I have listened to other surface Sailors speak of how boring it must be to go to sea in a steel tube and not see the light of day for months on end. I have also listened to countless Sailors boast of how easy it would be to track down a sub with sonar and kill it with a single torpedo.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm a surface Sailor to the core. I'll always prefer the open ocean, pounding waves, and gentle calm of the surface to the abyss below. But that's really not the point.
Maybe it's the sheer nonsense of all the comparisons that makes me want to write a review about the movie U-571 which I now feel should be mandatory viewing by all "skimmers".
You see, I have picked up a slang term of my own from having served on the staff of the submarine force. As surface Sailors boast of their abilities, it might be beneficial to pay attention to a common comparison often made by submariners: "there are only two kinds of ships in the Navy, submarines and targets."
Laugh as you will, that phrase is really quite telling. The movie U-571 demonstrates a surface ship's ability to wreak havoc on a submarine. But the movie also points out the tenacity of a submarine crew and drives home the point that "it ain't over until it's over".
So what's my point? Where's the review? This is the review.
It's a review of reflection. A reflection on a career spent sailing the oceans on the surface, all the time thinking I was safe. Not once in all my years going to sleep on a ship at sea did I even consider danger from below. Sure, I sometimes worried about the same things others worried about; storms, collision, fire, flooding - all the usual perils at sea. But not once did it cross my mind a submarine, lurking in the depths, could shatter the dead of night with a single shot. I never seriously considered myself vulnerable.
The movie U-571 makes me feel good. The movie has all the elements of an award-winning epic. But the movie also makes me think. It makes me think about some of the World War II submarine veterans I have met. It makes me think about how I sort of dismissed some of their stories as "over dramatizations" of how things really were. It's easy to rationalize how stories get blown out of proportion and think "there's no way it could have been that bad."
Sitting in the theater, I couldn't help but wonder what kind of memories a movie such as this would stir in some of our submarine veterans? Was it really that bad on submarines? I tried to see the expression on Turk Turner's face as he watched the movie. He served on submarines back then. He was also a POW. Unfortunately, I was unable to see his expression. Then again, it's probably better I didn't. This movie, U-571, must be haunting to some of those who remember.
Unfortunately, as bad as it seems in the movies and books, I suspect it was actually much worse. I have heard several submarine veterans speak of being depth charged. They don't talk about it in great detail. They don't boast about having survived it and they don't seem to look to others for understanding.
I believe the submarine veterans who lived through such encounters only look as far as a fellow veterans for that understanding; one look into the eyes of a submariner of that era and the understanding they long for is achieved. I've seen how they look at each other when one of them tells a sea story. It's a look outsiders like myself will most likely never completely appreciate.
The movie U-571, however, gives a glimpse into their world. Hopefully, it's a world most of us will never know, or come to appreciate first hand.
Had I not met some of the people who endured what the actors in U-571 portrayed, I may have been more interested in writing about how good Bill Paxton or Matthew McConaughey performed, rather than reflecting on the sheer reality of what took place during that era.
I might have been more interested in the special effects, or who the good guys were.
I might have even been more interested in finding fault with some of the reviews I have read. I most assuredly would not have left the theater thinking "I need to write about this."
Had I not had the fortune (and I use that word intentionally) of meeting some of the World War II submarine veterans who served on some of those boats that endured the very same horrors, I may have been skeptical of the movie. It was, after all, quite sensational.
Balance and perspective are important to me. To appreciate U-571, you don't have to be a submariner. You don't have to be a veteran. You don't even have to necessarily love the Navy.
To appreciate U-571 you have to be human. You have to be open to knowing in your heart such events took place as seen and that there are people in our midst who are still able to recount how real and horrific those times were.
Should we lose the perspective of those who have served on submarines during those years of war, the same arrogance and lack of understanding I have sometimes witnessed in my own branch of the Navy could very well infest the ranks of those who serve in submarines today. A movie like U-571 drives home a poignant fact: no one is actually safe at sea. Okay, maybe that's a bit melodramatic. But then again, the greatest truths usually are.
This year, when the Academy Awards are given out, they should present an honorary award to those who served as the inspiration to this movie. Call it the "Silent Statue" for the Silent Service.
Every World War II submarine veteran who served in combat, endured countless depth charges, lost close friends, and never once asked to be singled out for bravery or heroics, and is still with us to tell about it, should be called up in front of all America, and awarded a statue.
The movie U-571 is thrilling. It's exciting and it's a hit. It makes me proud to be in the Navy. It's a movie I would recommend to a friend and will probably buy it when it hits the stores.
What's more, the film makes me want to reach out and shake the hands of the submarine veterans who went through hell, and say thank you for their service. A simple thank you seems to mean a lot to veterans.
The reviews I have read fail in their description of U-571 in that there is simply no quick or easy way to describe what happens when you take a World War II submarine veteran's most chilling moments of their lives, project those frightful scenes on the "big screen", and then debate about how realistic the movie was, or how powerful the actors were.
See the movie. But watch carefully - there's more to this movie than what meets the eye.