Set during World War II, U-571 is a fictional tale inspired by a composite of events that transpired during the Battle of the Atlantic. In April of 1942, Allied forces lose ship after ship all along the eastern U.S. seaboard. The German submarines (a.k.a. U-boats) responsible for most of the losses are using a secret radio code which the U.S. Navy can’t crack. So a Navy sub is sent in to steal the enemy’s coding device which is know as "Enigma." Posing as a German repair sub, the Americans board the crippled U-571, take it over and secure Enigma. Their intent is to then scuttle the U-boat and return to their own vessel, but just as they begin to raft back to safety, their "ride home" blows up. Trapped in a foreign submarine, surrounded by hostile waters, the small crew of Americans face one hazard after another to get Enigma back to Navy headquarters.
Positive Elements: The honor of military service. These Navy submariners aren’t even properly trained for their mission, but they carry it out with fortitude, resourcefulness and determination. Lt. Tyler, called Andy though most of the movie, gets passed up for a big promotion right before the mission begins. His disappointment and feelings of betrayal don’t stop him for competently fulfilling his own responsibilities with alertness and professionalism. When Andy finds himself the de facto captain of the U-boat, he learns that a military leader must make excruciating decisions that not only affect his own life, but the lives of those in his command. He loves his men. And while he is forced to make hard choices, he only puts them in harm’s way when it’s the only way.
Spiritual Content: A crewman crosses himself.
Sexual Content: A couple of crude comments include references to female anatomy. A soldier jokes about pornography.
Violent Content: Warfare violence, explosions and a claustrophobic intensity make for a spine-tingling, but not overtly gratuitous ride. A few scenes feature close hand-to-hand combat (one encounter shows a man being strangled and shot at close range), but the majority of the violence in U-571 comes in the form of gigantic explosions and "impersonal" gunfire. Depth charges. Ship cannons. Machine-gun fire. Torpedoes. In one scene, a soldier dies when his clothing catches on fire.
Crude or Profane Language: Less than what has come to be expected in most military dramas. No f-words. About 10 s-words (once in German with English subtitles). Numerous uses of other profanities. There are also several instances in which God’s name is taken in vain.
Drug and Alcohol Content: When Andy doesn’t get his promotion, he drowns his sorrows in hard liquor. Cigarettes and cigars make several appearances. Champagne flows at a USO dance.
Summary: U-571 isn’t driven by a great script. In fact, one barely remembers even a scrap of dialogue while walking out of the theater. U-571 is about whether or not the titled vessel gets blown out of the water or not. Sure, you care about the people in it, but you end up thinking of them as a corporate whole rather than relating to or becoming invested in any one character. Andy's quest to become a captain, and the question of whether he’s good enough to be one, is a functional subplot, but it plays a distant second to the grand explosions and suspense surrounding the submarine’s battle to survive. Even the crew’s original mission—to get that coding box—remains in the background. It doesn’t matter much why the men are out there, the point is whether they can make it back in one piece.
U-571’s use of violence and foul language is remarkably restrained when compared with many of its recent big-screen peers. The submarine flick Crimson Tide fairly swam with the f-word. WWII epic Saving Private Ryan blasted viewers with ultra-realistic depictions of combat violence. That doesn’t counterbalance the problematic nature of motion picture violence and vulgarity, but it does lend perspective. As an edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting war thriller, U-571 rides high. As a character-driven reflection of WWII’s great heroes, it sinks faster than a torpedoed warship. As a quality film for teens and adults, it floats somewhere in the middle.