[box cover]

The Perfect Storm

Warner Home Video

Starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly
and Diane Lane

Written by Bill Wittliff
Adapted from the book by Sebastian Junger

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

There's a conundrum at the heart of The Perfect Storm. An inescapable problem that from the beginning compromised the project of turning Sebastian Junger's bestselling true account of a marine disaster into a hit film. It's a problem so obvious that surely the filmmakers recognized it immediately. Yet this reviewer's selective reading of the mass press about the adaptation both at the time of release and on the IMDB (which has links to no less than a fractional 146 of them) unearthed no mention of the paradox that makes seafood of the film's premise.

It's simple, really — when the swordfishing boat Andrea Gail set sail in October 1991 from Gloucester, Mass., on a desperate second run for fish, the crew had no idea that it was riding into the storm of the century. When the winds and waves finally receded several days later, the Andrea Gail and all hands were lost. Bits of the ship floated up onto the coast of Newfoundland or somewhere, but otherwise the vessel had vanished. There were no survivors among its six man crew. It's last radio communication was quite early in the proceedings. The point is clear — no one knows what happened on that ship! In his book, Sebastian Junger speculates cautiously and offers up a few scenarios, based on interviews with veterans of other storms and his knowledge of the characters involved. But Junger focused on those waiting back home, fretting hopelessly as the storm increased and word from their loved ones seemed less likely.

Junger's book is about the effects of disaster. But The Perfect Storm is a disaster film. Some epicene French intellectual, his yellowed fingers tobacco-stained, his rotting teeth hued brown from coffee, might be inclined to make a film about those who wait, an anti-film about ordinary people. Some Iranian neo-realist would embrace wholeheartedly a small tale exploring the nuances and subtle gestures of a fishing community quietly enduring the tension of a disaster once removed. But this is the American film industry we're talking about here, so we need a manly cast, special effects, and most of all an action-filled story. So what do they do? They make it all up!

I'm exaggerating for dramatic effect, of course. In the end, director Wolfgang Petersen — no stranger to nautical tales and confined spaces — and screenwriter Bill Wittliff seem to hew greatly to the facts of everything else the book recounted — the living situations of the crew members and their mates and ex-mates, and the various rescue missions that were conducted parallel to the Andrea Gail's travails. But it's an action film. Whereas a Lucino Visconti might explore more fully and carefully the economic climate of the fishing industry as it affects a town like Gloucester, Petersen & Co. rush through all that stuff. The key thing is to get out on the water and face the elements.

The crew of the Andrea Gail is led by one Billy Tyne (George Clooney). He's had a run of bad luck at sea. Of late, his colleague (and potential lover?) Linda Greenlaw (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) has been more successful on the sister-ship she captains. Frustrated, and goaded on by the ship's owner (Michael Ironside), Tyne decides to take his crew out again after only a few days in port. They consist of Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg, reuniting with Clooney after Three Kings), Murph (John C. Reilly, reuniting with Wahlberg after Boogie Nights), Sully (the great William Fichtner), and two others we never really get to know too much about. Additionally, a rich guy (Bob Gunton) is cruising down the coast to the Bahamas with a crew of two women (Karen Allen, Cherry Jones). When the storm comes, he at first refuses to abandon his boat. Eventually a rescue helicopter enters the scene, but after an initial recovery further disasters ensue. Meanwhile the hexed Gail crew, pushing itself, strays far into the northern Atlantic. After some initial success, they lose their ice machine. But trying to get back before their fish rot, they run into three converging storm fronts right over their heads.

It's not giving anything away to say that the ship is lost. Everybody knows that. You'd think that no one would want to see a film about failure and loss, even with millions of dollars of special-effects work thrown at it. But never underestimate a natural human fascination with failure and how we cope with it. And still, there's that pesky problem — what happened on board that ship? Little, if anything, is known. Into the vacuum, the filmmakers pour a series of clichés and predictable disasters, such as people falling overboard all the time. Sully and Murph are fighting about something but it's never made clear just what their dispute happens to be. The crew pulls a shark on board. All this is ultimately unnecessary prelude to the big storm, which eradicates all human differences and reminds one of other implausibility packed cliché vehicles, such as Memphis Belle.

Nobody asked me, but if I had been in charge of this production, I would have emphasized the helicopter rescue of the rich guy, casting Clooney and Wahlberg as pilot and para-rescue jumper. This is an exciting, true, and successful mission in Junger's book, but fraught with problems and, in the film, filled with mostly anonymous people. Tilting the movie to this tale would still allow the tragedy of the Andrea Gail to exist, but it could be relegated to a counterpoint tale of failure, and perhaps even allow for some star-making roles for young actors. But what do I know? Budgeted at $120 million, The Perfect Storm made $181 million in the U.S. alone upon its release in July of 2000. So people liked what they got.

All of the preceding qualifications, demurrals, criticisms, and arm-chair directing recede with the waves before the fact that, in the end, The Perfect Storm is a fairly good movie. The storm scenes are excellent, with barely a visible difference between CGI and real water. The cast is all-around dependable. Clooney consolidates his big screen appeal, and at one point when Linda maintains that she doesn't love fishing, Tyne disagrees. "Oh yes, you do. We do," he says. "The fog's just lifting, you throw off your stern, you move out the South Channel, past Rocky Neck and Tenpound Island, past Niles Pond, where you skated as a kid, on to Black Bess Point, blow your airhorn and throw a wave to the lighthouse keeper's kid on Thatcher Island. Then the birds arrive, blackbacks and herring gulls, big dump ducks and green-legged coots. The sun hits you, you head north and open up to 12, steaming now. The guys are busy and you're in charge. And y'know what? You're a goddamn swordboat captain. And is there anything better in the world?" It's a great speech, wonderfully delivered. Many actors have received Oscar nominations for much less.

And here's how to release a DVD. Warner has packed its Perfect Storm disc to the gills with almost everything you could possibly want. All it lacks is an isolated track of James Horner's exhilarating score. The disc comes with a error-free anamorphic transfer (1.85:1), with the fantasic audio in Dolby Digital 5.1. Of course, the storm scenes are overwhelming, but even dialogue sequences are subtle and effective. Audio also comes in French Dolby 2.0 Surround, apparently dubbed in Quebecois, while subtitles are in English and French.

Highlights of the supplements include a commentary from director Wolfgang Petersen, hosted by the producer of the supplements. Though sometimes sounding more like an acceptance speech — and while understandably focused on the ILM work on the movie — Petersen nevertheless provides a great deal of insight into the strategies of putting together such a complicated film. There's a second commentary with visual-effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier and visual-effects production supervisor Helen Elswit, who go into exhaustive detail about the ILM and other effects. Finally, there is a third commentary from Sebastian Junger, who provides a fascinating account of how he came to write the book, and he also goes into detail about the working life of fishermen and the history of Gloucester.

The other features are unusually effective and informative. The 20-minute HBO "First Look" featurette is one of the best in the otherwise bogus featurette genre, if for no other reason that it includes interviews with actual survivors of the 1991 storm. There is also a four-minute featurette of video footage called Witnesses to the Storm, with actual storm video footage. Plus, there is a four-minute featurette called Creating an Emotion that focuses on James Horner's score. Petersen narrates a segment on the conceptual art for the film. In addition, there is a photo montage with music and dialogue excerpts. Finally, also on hand is the theatrical trailer, a soundtrack CD promo spot, a lengthy storyboard gallery, cast and crew talent files on 12 principals. DVD-ROM features include chat rooms, behind-the-scenes features, and websites.

— D. K. Holm

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