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The Perfect Storm

Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Cast: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Diane Lane, Karen Allen, Michael Ironside

(Baltimore Spring Creek Productions; 2000)

There's only love

Here’s how the world ends: Marky Mark afloat on a dark and turbid sea, alone and Pip-like, channeling his true devotion to his loyal girlfriend back on shore. “There’s no goodbye,” he mournfully beams to her across the vast nothingness. “There’s only love.”


In the abstract, this is undoubtedly a scary picture. In context, it’s one of many strangely dorky moments in The Perfect Storm. While it’s somewhat breathtaking to see Marky Mark bobbing about as the camera pulls back to reveal that inexorable fx-ed ocean, it’s also kind of embarrassing, as if the scene is too private to be exposed in such a grand and silly way. On the other hand, the scene is also embarrassing because it is so grand and silly, and you may find your mind wandering, trying to figure out how anyone in Hollywood would have thought this emotionally complex true story was a good idea for an effects-driven movie. And that leads you back to the film you’ve just been watching for two hours, and all the characters’ lousy ideas, their lame rationales and understandable self-justifications, their terrible decisions based on inflated self-images and lousy information, on severe historical legacies and just plain awful cultural expectations of men.


And all this leads you back to a central and nagging question, one raised not by the film but by the book on which it’s based, Sebastian Junger’s fascinating chronicle of the tragically savage weather front of October 1991 and its primary casualty, the swordfishing boat Andrea Gail. Junger’s The Perfect Storm included interviews with survivors, historical background for the Gloucester, Massachusetts fishing industry, technical info on storms and fishing, and above all, a brilliantly unfixed run of supposing, a series of conjectures about what might have happened to the six men aboard the Andrea Gail, what they might have thought or said or done, facing the storm that would inevitably take their lives.


Imagining the men’s imaginings, trying to feel the riots of passion and fear and courage they must have gone through: if these aren’t noble goals, they are, at least, spectacular ones, and perhaps appropriate for a gigantor summer movie. It’s not long before the entire project begins to feel a bit dreary, a canvas for its celebrated ILM-produced fx more than ideas. In this sense, ironically, the film does live up to its designation, by one enthusiastic reviewer, as a “great American movie,” in that it’s bombastic and senseless. The weird and disappointing thing is that the film does set up – for a minute or two – a compelling set of knotty dilemmas, concerning the men’s near-existential anxieties and spiritual interwranglings. Instead, it sets them up in the early on land scenes, which establish character backstories and such, and then abandons them – leaves them bobbing about, if you will – in order to trump up some hackneyed plot manipulations, like stoic heroes, guys fighting and bonding, tragic love endless stories, and even a large, bogus-looking, leg-chomping shark.


On its surface, The Perfect Storm looks very good indeed, an unusually rich combination of both prestige and blockbuster elements. Director Wolfgang Petersen has made the harrowing Das Boot and well-crafted patriotic schlock Air Force One. And his cast includes George Clooney, Wahlberg, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, John C. Riley, and Diane Lane, all bringing respectable, even adventurous resumes, and a few bringing movie-star gloss to boot. And there’s that true story hook, involving the Andrea Gail’s encounter with a rare weather-threeway: a nor’easter, Canadian cold front, and a hurricane named Grace all came together to make 80-100 foot waves feet and winds at hundreds of miles per hour.


The storm was at first known as the “No-Name Storm” and the “Halloween Storm,” because it evolved so suddenly that the National Weather Bureau didn’t have time to come up with a proper name for it. In the film, the storm is vaguely metaphorical for – or in league with – other forces that work against the valiant sailors. Along with the storm, the film offers up cursory interests in social or even political issues as expository context, a way of pretending to explain why anyone would be so crazy as to sail into this storm. So, the first few scenes show that the fishing industry – in particular, its class, race, and gender structures—hasn’t changed much since the days of Melville and before, which Junger’s book underlines by quoting Moby Dick and the Bible. The movie translates this weighty history into a concern with money and reputation, introducing the men at their lowest ebb, as they return from a less-than-stellar run and wonder what the hell it is they’re doing with their lives.


In the movie, written by Bill Wittliff (who also wrote the decent tv miniseries The Lonesome Dove and Brad Pitt’s bad-hair movie, Legends of the Fall), these events conspire with “other factors” (seemingly human) to create calamity. These factors predictably comprise the greedy boat-owner Bob Brown (Michael Ironside, looking only slightly less reprehensible than he did in Scanners); the down-on-his-luck captain, Billy Tyne (Clooney); the idealistic youngster, Bobby (he wants to make this his last run, which is, of course, exactly what everyone watching knows he shouldn’t say out loud); and the women left behind. These include not only Bobby’s girlfriend Christine (Lane), but also his mom Ethel (Janet Wright), who also happens to run the local sailors’ watering hole, the Crow’s Nest (here they gather to shoot pool, drink, and listen to Springsteen and Rod Stewart). The rest of the crew has reasons to be at sea, mostly money. And Billy has Linda Greenlaw (Mastrantonio), a fellow fisherperson and potential girlfriend: just as he goes off on his terminal run, she asks him to “come home to Maine” with her, for no apparent reason except that, well, he’s George Clooney.


Despite the proposal he jokes away, Billy appears to have the most at stake – it’s his command and it’s his repeated failure, or at least it’s attributed to him and he takes such attribution very personally. This is the way of the fishing industry (and see how it resembles the way of the entertainment industry): you’re only as good as your last run. And so, the reasons for the men’s devotion to their work have less to do with their understanding of the danger involved (you see what they know, in the film’s opening frames, a grim pan of the wall memorializing the names of all the sailors lost to Gloucester since the 1700s). And he does seem to invigorate his sailors, not only Bobby, but also Alfred Pierre (a grizzled Allen Payne), lonely sadsack Bugsy (John Hawkes) – who, wouldn’t you know, meets a woman who seems to like him just before he leaves – the tough-hided, heart-of-golded Murph (Riley, who is, as always, great) and his sworn-enemy-who-comes-to-admire-him, Sully (William Fichtner, who deserves sympathy points for surviving the latest Demi Moore fiasco).


As sketchy as these characters are, you might still be looking for a reason to attach yourself to one or two. But you’re beaten back by two essential elements: 1) Wittliff’s rueful dialogue (Billy to the men: “This is where we separate the men from the boys!”; Billy to the hurricane: “Come on you bitch!”) and 2) James Horner’s histrionic score (perhaps all the adulation and prizes for his Titanic score has affected his sensibility). These aspects laid on top of the second hour’s overwhelming special effects make the whole experience feel like something you’ve endured before, namely, Jaws, Titanic, and Twister without the flying cow.


Jaws set the salty characters-against-all-odds formula as well as the summer blockbuster expectations, even though its 1975 fx were rudimentary and faulty. But if Bruce the mechanical shark was notorious for not jumping up when called on to do so, he also embodied an evil force, wit personality and vengeance. Icebergs and high wind, well, they’re not nearly so charismatic. The Perfect Storm understands this problem, much like Titanic and Twister, as well as the eminent disaster films of the ‘70s (Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno). And so, it tries to concentrate its storytelling energies less on the natural force or disaster per se than about the folks who fight back, or sometimes, the folks who observe. The Boston weatherman played by Chris McDonald is especially irritating, only on screen to provide meteorological details and utter the words, “It’s… the… perfect… storm!”


This reverence for perfection that you know is going to wreak havoc on human beings in the area, is of course, its own kind of hubris, in this case, the besmirched kind. And so the weatherman does his bit and is disappeared, so that the film might focus its attention on the waves, which have a neatly laid out plan of attack, apparently, on various different classes of people. You see the waves batter the Andrea Gail, the shoreline, a couple of ships in the distance, a sailboat, and the Coast Guard chopper sent to rescue the two boats. The battering of the sailboat people – a self-absorbed captain (Bob Gunton) and two rational women crew members (ever-perky Karen Allen and Cherry Jones) – demonstrates, I think, that even rich men make bad decisions based on pride and gendered anxiety. And that may be the film’s least offensive observation regarding class. While it is obviously invested in heroicizing the swordfishermen, in the end, the film trivializes the vastness of their experience, by containing it in so many cliches.

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