Jonathan Mostow’s first feature length film was 1997’s Breakdown, with Kurt Russell as Jeff Taylor, a middle-class white man victimized by rednecks in an extortion plot. The movie owes a debt to a spate of seventies films Deliverance being the most famous, The Hills Have Eyes probably the grittiest that put affluent urban families in the clutches of deranged country folk. The earlier films question what it means to be “civilized,” not only in the barbarous acts the besieged protagonists must commit to stay alive, but also in broader subplots concerning commercial and industrial development and the possibility that the money structures supporting the city dwellers’ affluence also play a hand in creating the people who attack them, or inspire their rage. (Deliverance unfolds over a backdrop of an “unspoiled” landscape developers are about to raze; The Hills Have Eyes takes place at an atomic testing ground in which radiation has mutated, and afflicted with bloodlust, the people who dwell within it.) By omitting such subplots, Breakdown makes itself a simpler thriller about haves and have-nots.
Mostow’s second feature, U-571, is also about unambiguous good guys and bad guys. In this submarine saga set on the high seas during World War II, a U.S. submarine crew is sent by Naval Intelligence to capture a disabled German U-boat, which is carrying an encoding machine called the Enigma. When the mission goes south and their own boat is destroyed, the U.S. crew is left to find heir way home through enemy waters with the precious Enigma on the German sub. Mostow spoke with PopMatters reviewer Mike Ward and film/TV editor Cynthia Fuchs about the war, as well as about authenticity, cultural memory, and all matters submarining.
I imagine this is not going to be the only time you’re asked this question: why change the original story, in which the British capture the machine in 1941? In your film, it becomes the Americans in ‘42. Do you anticipate a row about that?
When we started the movie last year, a couple of the British tabloids who weren’t exactly the most renowned for getting the facts right, printed a story that we were depicting the British incident in 1941, which was the raiding of the U-110, and we were essentially Americanizing the story. And people over there got upset. By the way, they should be, if that’s in fact the movie we were trying to make. But it’s not.
What happened in that incident was the British forced a U-boat to the surface with a depth charge attack and the destroyer was about to ram them. That was standard procedure because you didn’t want the U-boaters to get up on deck and point the deck guns at you. But he saw that the U-boat crew was all just jumping out of the boat into the water, so he pulled up short and he sent a boarding party across. They found this box that was sort of like a typewriter… [which] turned out it was later to be the Enigma machine, and that was a big breakthrough. Subsequent to that there were two more occasions when Allied forces went onto U-boats and stole the Enigma. One was the British in 1942, and one was the Americans in 1944. And none of those incidents by themselves would have made for a good movie, probably the most close if you’re gonna say that this is based on any one particular story, and it isn’t, it’s probably based on the American incident with the U-505, in which the Americans specifically went on a hunting mission to get a U-boat. That was the goal of the squadron commander, the task force commander, and they did it. In fact, they got the whole U-boat. In the case of the U-110, and the other U-boat that we captured, the Geneva convention said that you have to notify the other side when you take somebody prisoner. We violated that convention in the case… because, had the Germans known that we had a crew, they’d also deduced that we had the Enigma, so these crews were secretly sent to a farm in Louisiana and they were kept there secretly during the whole war.
A British war hero, actually the guy that led the expedition over to the U-110 in 1941, was quoted in the paper saying that he was upset about this whole situation, and I called him and said, “Look, I think you’ve got the wrong idea, and to prove it to you I want you to come see exactly what we’re doing—we’ve got no secrets.” So we brought him to the set, we showed him everything we were doing, we showed him the script. And he said boy, it looks like you’re telling a sort-of fictional sea yarn, against the backdrop of history. And he reserved fully making judgment until he could see the final film. So when I had the director’s cut of the movie, I showed it to him, and he loved it. What he said was [adopts British accent], “But I don’t remember the real war being quite so noisy.”
How did you think about showing the German perspective? I’m thinking of the first few moments, where you’re focused in on the German crew as they torpedo a merchant ship and the captain says, “We’ve broken their backs.”
That was the way they talked. But these aren’t cliche Nazi villains. These are submariners who are fighting for the other side. You know, Das Boot, in terms of the technical authenticity of the submarining, it’s a very accurate movie. But there’s one huge falsehood in that movie, and it’s the depiction of these submariners as being sort of apologists for fighting for Hitler. It represents the guys [as if] they were jolly good sailors minding their own business, and all the sudden, Hitler comes to power and they’re stuck fighting under the Nazi flag. Well, it’s completely untrue: the submariners were the most gung-ho Nazis of all. They were all volunteers, they were quite young. There was a huge propaganda effort inside of Germany to get people to volunteer for submarines and the pay was doubled, there was great prestige with it. And what they weren’t telling… was that if you went submarining, chances are three out of four that you never came back alive. I’d spoken to Allied officers who captured some of the guys at sea, and asked, how are they? I always got the same answer: they were real Nazis. They were right out of the movies. Blue-eyed, blond hair, completely arrogant…. If anything, my movie is too easy on them. I didn’t want to get into a whole Nazi-as-bad-guy thing necessarily: I wanted to focus on the submarining. Like for instance, when they machine-gun a boatload of British survivors from a merchant ship, it’s not necessarily just out of cruelness, it’s out of necessity. They let those guys live, then the chances are raised that their location will be revealed if those survivors are picked up. And what that really does from a historical point of view, is it raises the stakes. It just lets everybody understand how important it is that their security is protected and to what extent they’ll go to protect that.
The German captain that ends up on the submarine turns almost Terminatoresque after a while: he keeps coming back with more deviousness.
Well, he’s just doing his job. I actually had some stuff in the original screenplay where it was a little bit more, you know, Glenn Close rising out of the bathroom with a dagger, but then I thought that was too silly. He looks for his opportunity, seizes it. I’m not making a docudrama. You want that, go to the History Channel. This is a movie that… you know, it’s a movie.
Can you talk about the idea in the film—as shown in the relationship between Lieutenant Tyler (Matthew McConaughey) and the chief (Harvey Keitel) that the mission is always paramount and the skipper must always be right? I’m wondering whether you’re a little bit concerned that that sort of political positioning in the movie might have a friction with a cynicism that audiences might have, about military hierarchy and intelligence and that kind of thing.
Well, here’s the interesting thing about this movie. We’ve tested it a number of times, and there’s a couple of surprises. One surprise is that women love the movie… it tested like a women’s picture, you know, with Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey. I don’t really understand why because I see this as a kind of a guy picture. The other surprise is that people come out of the movie feeling so patriotic and rooting for these characters. I think the fact that there is a general cynicism in our society about anything related to the government or military is exactly why people are responding so strongly to this movie. Because this movie harkens back to a time when it was if you can say there is such a thing as a good war this was a good war. It was clearly good versus evil. There was a homicidal maniac named Adolf Hitler who was well on his way to destroying the world as we knew it. And there was not the guilt in the enemy that goes along with Vietnam, or you know, Grenada, or even the Gulf War, for that matter.
As well, in testing the movie, one of the favorite characters is the Harvey Keitel character. They love the idea of this guy who, he has more seniority and experience than anybody in the boat, but his course in life is not to be an officer or to lead men. He will execute any order he’s given but he doesn’t want to be in that position of actually making the decisions. It’s a very interesting relationship that exists on submarines, because you have to live in such close quarters that it breeds a certain kind of familiarity and easygoingness. None of these guys had any military bearing. Ninety percent of the time was fine, you’re just on patrol, but 10 percent of the time, there were these really sticky, tense situations, and all the sudden, the title that you had mattered greatly. In the case of the McConaughey character, his problem is that he’s got seniority with the men, but he doesn’t have the wherewithal to separate himself and make those decisions. So, will people be cynical about these sorts of relationships? I think it’s actually the opposite. I think people will realize that the values that seem to be afloat in this movie are appealing.
There may be at least a small wrench in this easy-going atmosphere, in the cook, (T.C. Carson). Can you talk about his place in the film, as the only black character?
Unfortunately a two-hour movie is not really enough time, so I wish it was a miniseries or a television series because I could go explore that interesting [topic]. The submarine service in a sense was the most racially progressive of all the forms of the military. Every submarine had cooks and mess stewards and they were always black and/or Filipino. What’s interesting is that everybody on a submarine is a volunteer, even in wartime, in every Navy in the world, because you cannot afford to have anybody in a submarine that doesn’t want to be there.
The other thing that happens in submarines is, everybody has to know how to do everybody else’s job, because if some disaster happens, if there’s an engine fire, you can’t call in for replacements. So from a practical-safety, procedural point of view, it’s essential that everybody knows everything. So a guy like Carson’s character would have trained in everything, in every department. Once you’re qualified on submarines, you’d have your dolphin. He’d be like everybody else. He’d have his dolphin, which signifies that he’s been qualified in all areas. So, the guy who operates the torpedoes could also operate the engine, the radio operator could steer the boat. But [serving on] submarines was among the deadliest of all occupations in WWII: 22 percent of all our submariners never came back. So who are these African American and Filipino men, young men, that volunteered to go into dangerous duty to cook and clean up after people, and maintain the living quarters? It’s really fascinating. They were very patriotic guys.
Still, the character does articulate the racism he’s living with, when he talks about what it’s like to be “invisible.”
Yeah, it’s not like the submarine service was completely different than other parts of the military. But it was definitely an all-for-one, one-for-all approach and once you were on that submarine, you were one of the men. And the submariners that I’ve spoken to have said that in their experience, there was quite an absence of racism. I’ve read stories about black army units: they always got the crappy assignments, doing the most dangerous things, the first ones in, they were often sacrificed as guinea pigs. So in that sense, [the submarines were] very different. And again, if you imagine living at sea for 60 days where you’re sharing living quarters and everything, you come to know people better than you can possibly imagine. And the problem with racism is always ignorance. It’s people don’t know each other, and they look at the color of somebody’s skin and make a judgment about them; usually once they get to know the person, that goes away.
I’m wondering about the current nostalgia for WWII, with Private Ryan, Tom Brokaw’s book [The Greatest Generation], and your film: is there a cultural function served by this movement, now?
I think that filmmakers have always been interested in World War II movies. I mean, if you are 30 years old or older, if you were a baby boomer, basically, you grew up in the shadow of that war. In my house growing up, in the basement like very other kid in the block, we had the army surplus World War II tents and canteens; if you went camping, you used the whole thing. And in my parents’ generation, everybody was involved in the war. I had uncles who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. I had an uncle who was a tailgunner, who you had to fly 50 missions, and then you got sent home. On his fiftieth mission, he was shot down and killed over North Africa. So I came from a family where there was a Purple Heart up in my father’s closet the government had given my family after my uncle died. So, I think it’s entered the consciousness. And then, the scope of World War II is so huge it’s inherently cinematic, as horrible as that sounds to say. But never before, and hopefully never again, will we ever see something on a scale where there’s millions of troops, and hundreds of planes and tanks and artillery as far as the eye can see.
It seems that part of what you’re saying is that we’ve recovered from Vietnam or that we’ve moved on from that.
I think we’ve digested it. I think it takes time. Whenever a tragedy happens to you or your family, it takes time to recover from that and then be able to gain perspective. Until recently, looking back at our country’s involvement in war you sort of stopped. Vietnam was this giant obstacle that prevented you from looking back any further because it cast a shadow over everything. And now, it’s about perspective. As we’ve got to the end of the millennium, now we’re looking back over time, certainly over the last century. We’re saying, “Okay, boy, that World War II really stands out as an amazing achievement for our country and a time, one of the few times in this century that the whole country got together and did something.” And the only other time the country’s got together in that sense is probably when we put a man on the moon, [with a] collective sense of achievement. WWII is so powerful thematically and sociologically, and politically every dimension of it is completely extraordinary. So, I think we’ll continue to see movies about World War II until somebody makes the big stinker flop that makes all the studios go, “Can’t make a World War II movie,” and then we’ll wait another twenty years. That’s the way Hollywood always goes.