|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.
|© 2007 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.