Friday June 30, 2000
"The Perfect Storm" didn't get its name by being nice. Rather, as Sebastian Junger's book explained, this was "a storm that could not possibly have been worse," a marine event with 120-mph winds, rain so intense it drowned birds in mid-flight and waves of a size "few people on Earth have ever seen." When meteorologists began calling this the storm of the century, no one thought to argue.
Taken from Junger's enormously popular book (3.5 million copies in print) about the October 1991 Atlantic juggernaut and the people with the dreadful luck to be at sea when it struck, "The Perfect Storm," like its namesake, overwhelms the obstacles in its path.
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen and starring George Clooney as the captain of the swordfish boat Andrea Gail out of Gloucester, Mass., "The Perfect Storm" has noticeable problems with characterization and dialogue. But once that awesome storm, one of the most terrifying ever put on film, gets cranked up, it's hard to remember what those difficulties were, let alone care too much about them.
Elaborate watery disasters have been shot as far back as 1929's "Noah's Ark," which created a flood so realistic it reportedly cost the lives of several extras. But the ferocious storm sequences here are even more unnerving thanks to modern movie technology and a director who knows how to use it.
Even if you didn't know weather this threatening was on its way, the pre-maelstrom segments of "The Perfect Storm" would play like marking time, which is what they are. Written by Bill Wittliff ("Legends of the Fall," the "Lonesome Dove" miniseries), "Storm" has no choice but to depart in places from Junger's gripping book, not always with the best results.
Great chunks of the printed work, for instance, are filled with fascinating but unfilmable scientific information and storm lore. Junger also only lightly characterizes the six-man crew of the Andrea Gail, and he doesn't speculate overly much on what happens to them aboard ship.
But since the film is increasingly concerned with these men's fates, screen time is spent on an understandable but largely inept attempt to create back stories that will provide them with reasons to go out to sea and us with reasons to care if they come back or not.
For the Andrea Gail's Capt. Billy Tyne (Clooney), who apparently went out to fish on that trip because fishing is what he did, the film clumsily concocts an added incentive in the form of a challenge to his manhood by the ship's owner, who needles Billy for his lack of productivity until the captain snaps, "I'm gonna bring you more fish than you ever dreamed of."
As for the Andrea Gail's crew, all of whom need the money an extra trip to the Grand Banks fishing grounds would provide, they are given the equivalent of cuddly stuffed animals back home. New guy Bobby Shatford (a convincing Mark Wahlberg, who grew up scant miles from Gloucester) has an intense relationship with Christina Cotter (Diane Lane, effective as always). The divorced Murph (John C. Reilly) has a small son he's devoted to. Alfred Pierre (Allen Payne) has an inexhaustible string of girlfriends. Even the loveless Bugsy (John Hawkes) contrives to meet a woman just before the ship departs.
"The Perfect Storm" also provides numerous "is this trip necessary?" premonitions from everyone from Linda Greenlaw (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a friendly rival captain, to Bobby's mother, who says, "The Grand Banks are no joke in October" with a straight face. And as rushed as the men are to get out to sea, there's still time for a completely silly "You're a god---- sword-boat captain, is there anything better in the world?" elegy to his profession by Capt. Billy. Aye, aye to that, sir.
These flimsy constructs turn out to be more irritating than necessary. We'd care about Saddam Hussein in the grip of this storm of storms, a meeting of three independent weather systems that causes an amazed TV meteorologist to say, in tones usually reserved for horror and science-fiction films, "Oh my God, it's happening."
Once the maelstrom hits, "The Perfect Storm" smartly goes back and forth between the Andrea Gail and Capt. Billy, acting more and more like a defiant Ahab the stronger the storm gets, and the smaller Satori, a sloop embarked on what it innocently thought would be a pleasure cruise to Bermuda.
The Satori's story is especially potent because it involves a Coast Guard rescue ship and the awesome Air National Guard rescue jumpers, remarkable individuals who voluntarily leap out of cozy helicopters into roiling pitch-black seas to save lives. Their exploits are the most nerve-racking "The Perfect Storm" provides and probably deserve a film of their own.
The storm of the title is as awesome as it is, with destructive torrents of water and waves that look as big as the Chrysler Building, because of director Petersen's great gift (remember "Das Boot") for physical verisimilitude, not to mention the interaction of men in confined spaces.
Also, the film benefits from the way it combines traditional and modern special effects. Most of the filming was done on the largest sound-stage tank in the world, 100 feet by 95 feet and 22 feet deep, with a full-sized ship attached to motion-inducing gimbals. Then the genies at ILM, led by visual effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier, added whatever computer-generated imagery was necessary to make things seem super-real. So real, in fact, that survivors of the film may conclude that leaving the house in a heavy drizzle is way too much of a risk.
The Perfect Storm, 2000. PG-13, for language and scenes of peril. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio Linda Greenlaw George Clooney as Billy Tyne. Mark Wahlberg as Bobby Shatford. Diane Lane as Christina Cotter. John C. Reilly as Dale "Murph" Murphy. William Fichtner as David "Sully" Sullivan. John Hawkes as Michael "Bugsy" Moran. Allen Payne as Alfred Pierre.