The Perfect Storm
Screenplay : Bill Wittliff (based on the book by Sebastian Junger)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : George Clooney (Captain Billy Tyne), Mark Wahlberg (Bobby Shatford), Diane Lane (Christina Cotter), John C. Reilly (Dale "Murph" Murphy), William Fichtner (David "Sully" Sullivan), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Linda Greenlaw)
"I had some misgivings about calling it The Perfect Storm, but in the end I decided that the intent was sufficiently clear. I use perfect in the meteorological sense: a storm that could not possibly have been worse." -- Sebastian Junger, from the Foreword to "The Perfect Storm"
There is one particularly breathtaking shot in Wolfgang Peterson's "The Perfect Storm" that gives a true sense of the horrible, awesome power of nature at her most furious. It starts with an aerial shot above three weather systems--a hurricane and two storms--that are colliding in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, an event that happens perhaps once a century. The camera, having established their positions, then moves swiftly downward, through the clouds and into the swirling winds and lightning, finally arriving in the maelstrom at ocean level where black, monstrous waves are lashing back and forth in a vicious fury.
The waves in "The Perfect Storm" become like traditional monsters in a horror film, where we know they are out there and we feel their presence, but we only get fleeting glimpses of all their power when lightning strikes, briefly illuminating their terrifying magnitude. And, like most horror films, the main character are not the human victims and heroes, but rather the monster itself. The storm in "The Perfect Storm" is the main character of the film, and it is brought to life with jaw-dropping realism by a combination of elaborate stunts in a water tank and digital computer effects. Once the perfect storm is raging, it does not let up, and you walk out of the film battered and beaten.
There are human characters in the film, all of whom are based on actual people who either lived through or died in what is now called "The Storm of the Century," which hit in October 1991. These characters, mostly ordinary, blue-collar swordfishermen and their loved ones in Gloucester, Massachusetts, were immortalized in Sebastian Junger's 1997 book about the storm. The central characters are six men aboard a fishing vessel named the Andrea Gail. Because no one knows what happened on-board the Andrea Gail after her last radio contact before the storm hit, Junger surmised only the basics of what probably happened, and his limited speculations were based on the experiences of other ships in the storm.
In adapting the book, screenwriter Bill Wittliff ("Legends of the Fall," "The Black Stallion") had to create the details. In fact, a good two-thirds of the film is really speculation and fictionalization of the events on board the Andrea Gail during that horrible storm. There are several added plot contrivances that are designed specifically to relieve any one man of the burden of being responsible for the Andrea Gail heading into the heart of the storm. Thus, we get a scene where the on-board ice machine has broken, and if they don't head back to port, the tens of thousands of dollars worth of swordfish in the hold will spoil. No one man makes the decision; instead, they vote together to head into the growing hurricane. Thus, they are all responsible for what happens.
The two principle characters are Billy Tyne (George Clooney),the captain of the Andrea Gail, and Bobby Shatford (Mark Whalberg), a rookie fisherman. Tyne is in trouble because he has been on a recent bad streak, and there is great deal of pressure being exerted on him by the owner of the Andrea Gail (Michael Ironside) to bring in more fish. At first, it appears that blame will lie squarely on Tyne because it is his reckless ego as a swordboat captain that sends the boat back into the ocean so late in the season. But, as mentioned earlier, the decision to head straight into the storm is a group one.
Bobby has recently fallen in love with a woman named Chris Cotter (Diane Lane), and they have plans to move in together. She tells him not to go out on this trip because she has a bad feeling, but they need the money. The other crewmembers are an assorted group of roughnecks, including Murph (John C. Reilly), a hothead divorced father, and Sully (William Fichtner), a man who was added to the crew at the last minute and, for reasons that are never satisfactorily explained, develops a violently antagonistic relationship with Murph.
It is a shame that these characters are not more fully realized. In the book, Junger had the benefit of being able to give a great deal of background information on these men, sketching in the kinds of intimate details and mundane life experiences that truly make you feel like you know someone. In the film, we get only a few scenes that give a broad overview of the life of a Gloucester fisherman--the endless days at sea broken up by a few days on land spent unloading the ship and getting drunk at the Crow's Nest, the local watering hole. It's not enough to make each character into the individual he deserves to be. So, when tragedy strikes, it's surprisingly ineffective.
But, even if the emotional dimension of the film is not what it should be, the technical aspects are outstanding. Director Wolfgang Petersen ("Das Boot," "Air Force One") takes us right into the middle of the storm and onto the deck of the Andrea Gail as she is smothered by 100-foot waves and gale-force winds. We ride on-board a Coast Guard rescue helicopter that runs out of fuel and must be ditched in mid-aid, sending five rescue crewmen into the raging waters below. For nearly an hour, Petersen maintains an intense cinematic onslaught that is likely meant to mirror the relentless nature of the storm it is depicting. After a while, one begins to wonder why anyone bothered including James Horner's score in the background, since it is essentially drown out by the crashing waves and howling wind, and screaming fishermen. (Perhaps a better choice would have been to take the route Alfred Hitchcock took with "The Birds" , where there was no musical score, only natural sounds that gave the impression of one.)
Thus, "The Perfect Storm" is a grand technical achievement and a failed human drama. This is unfortunate because real men lost their lives in this storm, and one can't help but feel that their memory deserves more than a well-crafted action film. While "The Perfect Storm" depicts with stunning detail what it must have physically felt like to be in the middle of the tempest, it gives no true indication of what it must have felt like emotionally, either on the boat knowing you are going to die, or on shore, knowing that you have lost a loved one.
©2000 James Kendrick