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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 06/29/2000, B: Peter Keough,

Sea plus

The Perfect Storm is downgraded

by Peter Keough

THE PERFECT STORM, Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Written by Bill Wittliff based on the book by Sebastian Junger. With George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Diane Lane, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, John C. Reilly, William Fichtner, Karen Allen, Allen Payne, Bob Gunton, and John Hawkes. A Warner Bros. Pictures release. At the Copley Place, the Fenway, the Fresh Pond, and the Chestnut Hill and in the suburbs.

The success of Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm restores one's faith in the intelligence of the reading public. True, the tale of the Andrea Gail, a long-line swordfishing boat out of Gloucester, and the no-name storm of Halloween 1991, reportedly the worst of the century, has sensationalistic potential. But who would want to read a book full of the detailed arcana of the swordfishing trade, the jargon of meteorological prognostication?

It's the kind of formula that doomed Moby Dick on its first publication. Add to that a lack of suspense (the ending is never in doubt, for all that the people at Warner Bros. have requested that the press not reveal the film's ending) and the absence of grisly detail (Junger has the integrity not to invent what can never be known, i.e., what exactly happened to the six doomed fisherman) and The Perfect Storm's long reign on the bestseller lists is hard to fathom.

Perhaps the book appealed to so many because it's everyone's life in microcosm, a battle against the waves until the last one that finishes the job, with the unthinkable details of the end left to the imagination. It is, as Wolfgang Petersen, director of the film version, likes to point out, a Greek tragedy: it adheres to Aristotle's definitions, and the heroes' fate is familiar to the audience.

Boat people

GLOUCESTER -- Wolfgang Petersen has a thing for impending doom in confined spaces. The German-born director has tormented his characters in a submarine (Das Boot), an elevator (In the Line of Fire), Air Force One (Air Force One), and now the tiny hold of the swordfishing boat the Andrea Gail in The Perfect Storm.

"Yes," he says in Teutonic accent that recalls the megaphone-wielding, dictatorial directors of Hollywood's Golden Age, "it's an old Greek-drama trick of the one space and time. You can't go out, especially when confronted with a crisis. Is it maybe a submarine with depth charges, or is it a plane with terrorists on board, or is it, like in our case, a boat facing the storm of the century? To watch the characters and how they interact in a situation like that, or in a doomed situation, that makes it very dramatic."

Aristotle's unities of time and place aside, what about his notion of "the imitation of an action"? How constrained or inspired did the director feel about re-creating an actual event, especially since many of the survivors are still living?

"You have an enormous responsibility, of course. Das Boot was a real story as well; it was the story of a war correspondent, one who was on that submarine and wrote a book about it, and the film was a tribute to German submarine sailors. This is a tribute to an American blue-collar world -- Gloucester fishermen. We have a responsibility to stick to the reality and tell their story and not to make huge compromises with a nice love story and clichés so that it might work better for a summer audience. I think it's a pretty risky thing to do and pretty bold, and I'm very proud that we did it."

Like Petersen, Sebastian Junger, who wrote the bestselling book on which the movie is based, has a thing for extremity -- the plight of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. "I felt that it's a little bit of a class issue here. That there are a lot of jobs in this country, a lot of industries that really cost a lot of lives. I mean, people die regularly working. Men particularly. And I felt that no one acknowledged it. The people who get all the glamor are people who are risking their lives at a performance, like mountain climbers, race-car drivers, guys like that. They're extraordinary athletes, I mean, I'm not criticizing them at all. I just felt that society should include in their admiration people who often have no education, who make very little money, and who are also doing something that is necessary to society. Society would be fine if no one climbs Everest again. It's not that I wanted to make heroes out of the working classes, but I just felt that it was time to focus people a little bit on things like logging -- tremendously dangerous. And everything's made of wood, practically. We remember our war dead, you know. We don't remember our working dead."

Was he worried that the film might violate the honor of these working dead, or exploit them for entertainment and financial gain?

"As long as it doesn't violate some basic principle I believe in, I'm fine with it. You know, if a UFO had come down and saved them, that violates a basic principle of mine. Any time you publicize a tragedy, you're either exploiting it or you're informing the public about something that they're blissfully unaware of. I would say it's a mix of the two. This honors the hard work and the tragic deaths of six anonymous guys. Now, people know that men die offshore fishing; they didn't before."

Petersen, though, is in the business of making blockbusters, not tragedies, and Storm is as watered down as you'd expect. Not much effort is spent re-creating the desperate ambiance or brutal lifestyle of the captain and crew of the Andrea Gail; instead they are reduced to stereotypes with easily identifiable traits and motivations and cliché'd dialogue. There's Bugsy (John Hawkes in the film's best performance, and with the best regional accent), an endearing loser who can't get laid and for whom fishing is about all he's got going for him. Murph (John C. Reilly, who looks like Barnacle Bill) is a seadog who wants to make money for his ex-wife and kid; Alfred Pierre (Allen Payne) is the token West Indian. And Bobby (Mark Wahlberg) is a rookie in love with Christina (Diane Lane) who must spend weeks at sea to earn the bucks to pay off his divorce lawyer.

They're all looking for a big payday, but their skipper, Billy Tyne (George Clooney), has hit a dry patch. His catch is dwarfed by that of rival captain Linda Greenlaw (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and scorned by the greedy boat owner (Michael Ironside). Desperate, Tyne decides to head straight out again, despite the weariness of his men and the treacherous October weather. The men grudgingly agree; taking on Sully (William Fichtner), a substance abuser in need of another chance, they set sail.

And that, except for some radio broadcasts, is the last that was ever heard of them. They didn't know that three separate storm systems were about to collide between them and their home port, forming a roiling cauldron of 100-foot waves and horizontal rain. Junger speculates in his book about what might have happened, and Petersen and screenwriter Bill Wittliff take the juiciest possibilities, add anecdotes Junger relates from other fishing trips, contrive some character conflict, pound it with tons of water, and set it all before a blue screen filled with computer-generated chaos and a soundtrack racked by the shrieking wind and James (Titanic) Horner's mawkish score.

For the most part the on-deck melodrama feels like a desperate way to prolong the inevitable. Family man Murph has it in for wastrel Sully, and the seasoned Captain calls Bobby a "punk," but this petty squabbling all comes out in the wash. More convincing is Tyne's dilemma: after pursuing the fish with Ahab-like obsessiveness, he faces the choice of either waiting out the storm and losing the catch or facing it and perhaps losing all their lives. The universality of this situation adds poignancy to the spectacular struggle to follow, and the film at times captures the sheer perversity of the inanimate, as in parallel sequences when Tyne battles a lethal loose boom and the rescue helicopter searching for them tries to refuel in midair in hurricane winds.

Enough is enough, however; the storm seems more endless than perfect, especially since it's augmented by the mishaps and rescues (some more involving) of others caught by it at sea. Storm lacks the tragic virtues of pathos and recognition: the characters are too slender for us to care about them and too blinkered to gain any knowledge from their sufferings beyond the standard platitudes. All that this sound and fury teaches is that it makes sense to come in out of the rain.