To Hell With the Whales, Save the Boats
In a coincidence I assume is meaningless, Das Boot has bubbled up twice this summer movie season, after snoozing for close to 20 years. First evoked in the backhanded homage of Jonathan Mostow’s U-571—essentially Das Boot told in reverse the venerable peril-at-sea movie is conjured again in The Perfect Storm, Das Boot director Wolfgang Petersen’s return to the familiar territory of the open waters. While in some ways The Perfect Storm resembles its superior predecessor, ultimately it only demonstrates, to Mostow and the rest of us, that no one can revise a perfectly fine film into meaninglessness better than the author himself.
Petersen has returned to familiar territory not only because Das Boot and The Perfect Storm are both seafaring adventure movies, but also because they take on a challenge Petersen seems to love—the titanic task of making a movie about a historical event whose outcome is widely known. Most of us have learned by now the unfortunate fate of three out of four German U-boat crews in World War II, so Das Boot audiences mostly knew from the outset that its protagonists didn’t stand much of a chance. Until recently, fewer people probably recalled the fate of the swordfishing boat “Andrea Gail,” which went missing during Hurricane Grace in 1991. But since the movie’s promotional juggernaut has reminded just about everybody of the Andrea Gail’s sad story, most who watch The Perfect Storm will know beforehand how the movie ends. In Das Boot, the inevitability of the U-boat’s fate helps drive home the movie’s point about the futility of war. But since The Perfect Storm prefers to make the troubling argument that catching swordfish is worth risking one’s life, knowing the movie’s outcome has no ideological meaning. So, for audience members familiar with the story, the protagonists’ journey is liable to feel like a simple, and dull, waiting game.
This isn’t to say that Petersen and co-screenwriter Bill Wittliff don’t try to make the characters worth caring about. This effort is channeled through heaps of blubbery backstory as the crew of the Andrea Gail returns, from a less-than- plentiful swordfish run, to their home-base fishery in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The hazards of their profession are efficiently indicated when a dead body from another fishing boat is toted ashore, and the nefariousness of the crew’s boss and boat owner Bobby Brown (Michael Ironside) is quickly conveyed when he makes clear he cares less about the dead fisherman than he does about Captain Billy Tyne’s (the sexy-or-so-I’m-told George Clooney) failure to bring back more fish. A seemingly unending domestic drama unfolds thereafter, centering on a local pub called the “Crow’s Nest” where the crew gathers to have meaningless sex or bicker publicly with their Significant Others.
The antics at the Crow’s Nest, giving us snapshot biographies of the crew, seem at once overefficient and overlong. All the attached or semi-attached crewmembers have basically the same traditional-family-values conflict: as the breadwinners they must return to sea, but their women, or ex-women, fear for their safety and try to make them stay on land. This doesn’t stop the movie from reiterating their troubled relationships one by one, most embarrassingly through young seaman Bobby and girlfriend Christine (Mark Wahlberg and Diane Lane). Their relationship consists mostly of swapping spit and reminding one another of their mutual affection, although when Bobby tells Christine he is to go on the Andrea Gail’s next run, she protests, “Why? Why do I even love you?” This is the first of Christine’s many groaners.
Once we’ve been provided backstories for everybody on the ship who’s white the sole black crewmember, Alfred Pierre (Allan Payne), is curiously and uniquely left out the Andrea Gail sets off to Grand Banks to get more fish. Encountering mishaps and a lack of bounty there, Captain Tyne ignores forebodings of bad weather and resolves to go further east, to the “Flemish Cap.” This is apparently a pretty scary place, but Tyne silences the crew’s misgivings with an overbearing speech about “separat[ing] the men from the boys.” The rumblings of Hurricane Grace begin in the meantime, mainly through gratuitous, gee-whiz CGI shots of oil tankers floundering on enormous waves. Each tanker, incidentally, comes with a caption telling us its location relative to Grand Banks or someplace called Sable Island. But the Andrea Gail’s arrival at its ultimate destination is signaled with a caption reading simply “The Flemish Cap,” relative to nowhere, as though the place existed on an astral plane. This impression is compounded when Tyne reveals his plan by radio to fellow seadog Linda Greenlaw (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). She reminds him that the Flemish Cap “is almost off the charts” and slides her finger way, way over to the far right edge of a map, where one half expects to see the serpents and dragons that inhabited the fringes of maps in the Middle Ages.
Here the movie almost becomes enjoyable as camp. Along with making the Flemish Cap a supernatural place, it turns Grace into a supernatural storm, mainly by crosscutting special effects shots of enormous waves with dumbfounded characters who reluctantly sing the hurricane’s praises. Being the unprecedented confluence of three meteorological events, it is “the perfect storm” or so raves a weatherman for Boston’s Channel 9, adding that “you could be a meteorologist all your life and never see anything like this.” Lest anyone miss the point and demand Grace be held over for a second week, people at sea handwring over “steaming into a bomb,” going “right into the middle of the monster,” or “head[ing] straight into Hell.” Not content with testing the extremities of the elements, the movie must also test the English language’s capacity for obviousness. This is reinforced with a parallel plot involving well-to-do leisure sailor Alexander McAnally III (Bob Gunton) and two women crewmembers, Melissa Brown and Edie Bailey (Karen Allen and Cherry Jones). McAnally’s name evoking both pedigree and retentive stuffiness suggests none-too-subtly he might turn out to be a hopeless schmuck, and sure enough he stubbornly rejects the women’s commonsensical entreaties to issue a mayday once the wind starts whipping. “This is my boat,” he says repeatedly as he insists on riding out the storm even as its intensity becomes more and more apparent. “This is my life,” Melissa barks back, finally, as she defies him to go on deck in search of help.
This conflict, between the value of boats and that of lives, is central to the movie and the real problem it calls attention to: namely, sailors in the fishing trade who routinely risk death to eke out subsistence livings. McAnally’s irrational boat fetish echoes Bobby Brown’s villainous greed in the movie’s opening moments; with Melissa’s angry protest, The Perfect Storm threatens to critically investigate the ongoing tragedy of these dying sailors, and the class and income troubles that give rise to it. The boss’s avarice is revisited around this time, when the Andrea Gail has to come about and head back to Gloucester after its icemaking machine (which keeps the catch fresh) fails because cheapskate Brown overhauled rather than replaced it. The implication is that Brown’s avarice and that of the institution he represents has imperiled the crew of the Andrea Gail much as McAnally’s inane egotism risks his life and the lives of those around him.
But this turns out to be so much window dressing. Tyne’s actions are, if anything, more self-centered and egotistical than McAnally’s with more lives at stake, he chooses not just to ride out the storm but to plow recklessly through it so he can get the load of fish back to Gloucester before it spoils. The movie nevertheless absolves him by making Alfred Pierre defend him in one of Pierre’s handful of spoken lines, and by having Wahlberg’s Bobby assure him that he made “the right decision” in choosing their fateful course. The movie opens by panning over a long list of sailors who have perished in the pursuit of spoils for the fishing industry; one fears this list will keep growing in proportion to the attitude the movie endorses, that of preferring property to people’s lives.