The Perfect Storm

          Back in October 1991, three separate weather systems collided over
  the Atlantic Ocean to create an unusual phenomenon that was dubbed
  "the storm of the century." At the time, journalist Sebastian Junger
  was living in Gloucester, Massachusetts and he witnessed firsthand the
  onshore devastation. He also observed how this unique meteorological
  condition had affected the residents of the community, many of whom
  earned their living from the sea. In 1997, he published the nonfiction
  book
THE PERFECT STORM which recounted many of the tales of men
  and women who were caught at sea during the tempest as well as those
  of the Coast Guard and other rescue teams. Gripping, fascinating and
  based on fact, the tale proved to be a critical darling and landed on the
  bestseller lists (undoubtedly helped in part by the movie star charisma
  of its author). When Warner Bros. purchased the screen rights, many,
  myself included, wondered just how a filmmaker could adapt such a
  sprawling tale. Certainly it had the archetypal theme of man battling
  against the elements, but those types of stories often did not translate
  easily to the medium of the motion picture. Even with advances in
  computer-generated imagery (CGI),
THE PERFECT STORM would prove
  problematic; there was no real overriding central narrative. Granted,
  Junger had focused a bit on the fishing boat the
Andrea Gail but her
  story was but one he detailed in his reportage.
  
          Reportedly several screenwriters took a crack at the script before
  director Wolfgang Petersen settled on a draft by Bill Witliff (whose
  credits include the TV miniseries
Lonesome Dove and films like
  
THE BLACK STALLION and LEGENDS OF THE FALL). Witliff opted
  to flesh out the crew of the
Andrea Gail and fabricated a story that
  had the ship's captain Billy Tyne (played in the film by George Clooney)
  experiencing a run of bad luck and pushing for one last expedition
  in order to earn a decent living. This may have sounded like a great
  idea, but it introduces an unfortunate theme that smacks of greed
  and makes Tyne seem more foolhardy than the man sketched by Junger.

          Some pieces defy translation from one medium to another and,
  in my opinion, this is the unfortunate case with
THE PERFECT STORM.
  On the page, Junger was able to simultaneously juggle several stories,
  using each to counterbalance the other. Because of the limitations of
  film, Petersen and Witliff have chosen to focus on the voyage of the
  
Andrea Gail. Hence, the first thirty minutes or so of the movie serve as
  exposition, introducing the members of the crew and their loved ones.
  Despite the fine efforts by the cast, most of the characters remain one-
  or two-dimensional. Clooney's Tyne has hit a slump, and his macho
  posturing (especially in contrast to the successful female captain
  Linda Greenlaw, played by the egregiously underused Mary Elizabeth
  Mastrantonio) is his defining characteristic. Dale 'Murph' Murphy (an
  excellent John C. Reilly) is a man in the throes of marital problems
  but keenly aware of how the breakup is affecting his son. Bobby
  Shatford (a strong Mark Wahlberg) is romancing local Chris Cotter
  (Diane Lane, offering arguably the film's best performance). There's
  a palpable chemistry between Wahlberg and Lane so their romantic
  scenes carry more emotional weight. John Hawes has a few amusing
  scenes as Michael 'Bugsy' Moran, whose desperate attempts to score
  with any woman lead him to an unlikely relationship with an overweight
  divorcee with two kids (captured with wit by Rusty Schwimmer).
  Unfortunately, the one minority character, Allen Payne's Jamaican
  Alfred Pierre, barely registers and is defined solely by his sexual
  prowess and his accent. Rounding out the crew is the quick-tempered
  David 'Sully' Sullivan (William Fichtner) who, in another diversion from
  reality, the filmmakers set up in conflict with Murphy.

          After this long interlude, in which there are admittedly some
  amusing moments, Tyne and his crew set out for one more fishing run.
  We're made to think that there is much at stake: but as scripted by
  Witliff, the stakes boil down to macho pride and a desire for money,
  neither of which generates much audience sympathy. The conflict
  between Murphy and Sullivan feels tacked on, as if something
  was required to infuse this portrait of fishermen with some juice.
  Similarly, the avuncular bonding scenes between Tyne and Shatford
  play almost as parody of a shipboard romance.

          Once the
Andrea Gail hits the high seas and the meteorological
  conditions begin to converge, THE PERFECT STORM moves into high
  gear. At this point, Petersen allows the state-of-the-art special effects
  teams to take over and the movie excels at depicting the sheer terror
  of the oceans. Yet, the inherent flaws of the structure of the piece
  threaten to capsize the film. In his book, Junger reported on several
  ships of various sizes which were caught up in this odd weather
  phenomenon. The filmmakers are never able to fully integrate these
  other stories successfully into the film. A subplot about a pleasure
  cruise to Bermuda is dropped in out of nowhere, and, despite the
  presence of talented heavyweights Bob Gunton, Cherry Jones and
  Karen Allen, barely engages the audience. The trio is the object of
  a daring rescue at sea by the combined resources of the Coast Guard
  and the Air National Guard but as the audience barely knows who
  these people are, there is no emotional payoff. Similarly, as the rescue
  mission unfolds -- including an attempt to refuel midair in the midst of
  the hurricane -- the sequences induce a curious lack of interest.

          In movies of this type, the actors often take a back seat to the
  effects and by the second half of
THE PERFECT STORM, that is the
  case. One can admire the technical wizardry of the film (in a curiously
  detached manner). One may also contemplate the dizzying challenges
  of staging so many scenes in and around water faced by director Petersen.
  But just as in
THE WIZARD OF OZ, when the curtain is drawn back
  and Dorothy sees the man behind the smoke and mirrors, viewers
  may come away from
THE PERFECT STORM feeling disappointed.
  Sequences that should have solid emotional force are undercut by the
  choppy editing of Richard Francis-Bruce. The normally esteemed
  cinematographer John Seale manages a few eerily attractive shots, yet
  the darkness and the walls of water eventually defeat him as well.
  James Horner's over-orchestrated, loud and cloying underscore proves
  distracting as well.

          Audiences who watch
THE PERFECT STORM hoping that some
  essence of Sebastian Junger's fine prose would be captured on celluloid
  will come away disappointed. There are moments, but in a film that
  runs over two hours, they are unfortunately too few. There are some
  works that defy translation to the big screen and arguably this was one.


                                          Rating:         C
© 2007 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.