Surf's down

The Perfect Storm drowns before it ever leaves shore

The press kit for The Perfect Storm contains the damnedest thing I've ever read. Right at the top, there is a "special request to the press" that reads, in full: "Warner Bros. Pictures would appreciate the press' cooperation in not revealing the ending of this film to their readers, viewers or listeners." All due apologies, but that seems highly implausible, as The Perfect Storm's plot boils down to a single sentence: In late October 1991, six swordfishermen from Gloucester, Massachusetts, aboard a ship named the Andrea Gail, collide with three converging storms and die.

This should come as no grand revelation, as Wolfgang Petersen's film is based upon Sebastian Junger's 1997 best-seller of the same name, which itself told "a true story of men against the sea," as the cover heralded. Junger even authored a story for The New York Times on April 30 in which he expressed his relief that Petersen did not give the movie a happy Hollywood ending. "I was worried that not wanting to kill off a big-name actor, they would have some of the Andrea Gail crew survive," Junger wrote, recounting his initial conversation with the director. "He had no intention of departing from the book, he told me."

So now you know: George Clooney dies at the end of The Perfect Storm. It would insult your intelligence, and cheapen the memory of six dead men, to pretend otherwise. The ending is no secret, and to offer false hope smacks of cynicism--as though Warners is offering this up as Twister or Wild Wild West, another bland action film sailing into summer's multiplexes. It's a sign Warners is afraid people won't see a downer film in the summer, no matter how intense its action. The studio had guts to stick to the story; too bad it now wants to pretend it didn't.

Look, he's still Batman: George Clooney hangs on to a flimsy script in The Perfect Storm.
Look, he's still Batman: George Clooney hangs on to a flimsy script in The Perfect Storm.

Details

Starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Diane Lane, John C. Reilly, William Fichtner, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio

Release Date:
June 30

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen

Written by Bill Wittliff, based on the book by Sebastian Junger

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What's astonishing is how faithless the movie is to Junger's book; no doubt, fans of the book will leave the film awed by its computer-generated waves and animatronic fish but dumbfounded by how inessential the six dead men are to the story's telling. Captain Billy Tyne (Clooney), Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg), Dale Murphy (John C. Reilly), David "Sully" Sullivan (William Fichtner), Mike "Bugsy" Moran (John Hawkes), and Alfred Pierre (Allen Payne) are barely characters at all. Screenwriter Bill Wittliff (The Black Stallion, Lonesome Dove, and a handful of Willie Nelson films) has turned them into stick figures who utter banal clichés ("Here's where we separate the men from the boys"; "We're starting to get an unlucky feeling out here") on a doomed boat. Junger took great care to give them resonance, to make them human; Wittliff turns them into soggy pieces of cardboard.

Inexplicably, he has decided to turn the book's footnotes--stories of ships in the immediate area, also caught in the turbulent seas in which deep-green waves resemble white-capped mountains--into entire chapters. Scenes aboard the Andrea Gail are now intercut with scenes aboard a struggling sailboat and its crew's rescue by a Coast Guard helicopter, which doesn't even appear in the book until after the Andrea Gail's crew is presumed dead. By the time the Coast Guard helicopter's crew fails a protracted refueling effort and is forced to ditch at sea--it has run out of gas en route to rescuing the Andrea Gail, which never happened--we're more concerned with their fate than that of the six fishermen. Junger is wrong, in that respect: Petersen and Wittliff have given a downer tale a happy Hollywood near-ending. The crew of the Andrea Gail may disappear beneath the "sea of glass mingled with fire" (a quote from Revelation, which Junger uses atop one of his chapters), but all is not lost to the graveyard. We can leave the theater satisfied that at least some have survived.

Certainly, it is a risky proposition to compare and contrast a film and the book upon which it's based, especially when it is a true story; it's far too easy to play the that-didn't-happen game, to get caught up in discerning truth from fiction instead of allowing the film to take us someplace else, someplace never before seen or felt. Besides, Junger's book was far from perfect: At times, it read more like a weather report playing hide-and-seek with a narrative and a historian's term paper. But the book worked because Junger never tried to make heroes of his characters; they were just men trying to make a living, whether to pay off ex-wives (as was the case with Bobby Shatford, the book's ostensible protagonist) or buy enough booze to keep them numb until the next trip out to sea. The book, at its best, reads like a protracted eulogy, a hopeless journey with an inevitably sad ending.

Petersen and Wittliff want only to turn The Perfect Storm into a rollicking adventure yarn (Clooney, in scenes, is Batman and Superman), and in doing so, they've all but abolished any reason for us to care for these men. They're but fodder for special effects, corpses to be disposed of when the film has ended. Clooney never becomes Billy Tyne--a counselor of drug-addicted teens who became a fisherman at his wife's insistence, only to lose her when he became addicted to the water--because there is no character to become. He tells us who he is ("When you're a goddamned swordboat captain, is there anything better in the world?") because he has nothing to show us beneath the scraggly beard and John Deere cap. All we know of him is that he's a fisherman on a losing streak; he is about to become even unluckier.

More gallingly, Wittliff adds in a romance for Tyne the book never even hinted at: Tyne flirts with Linda Greenlaw (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, looking as though she's in The Abyss outtakes), real-life captain of the Andrea Gail's sister ship. The two were indeed friends, colleagues who shared risk and reward, but this bubbling-beneath-the-surface love affair exists now to give Tyne's death resonance: The woman who loved him is left behind, alone. It's as though the filmmakers have little faith in our ability to care about Tyne, so they add in a woman who frets over him ("You be careful," she warns him over the radio. "This could be a triple-header") and, finally, mourns him. She cries so we don't have to.

Like Junger, the filmmakers try to keep Bobby Shatford in the center of the storm: He's our stand-in, our ticket aboard the Andrea Gail. He doesn't want to leave behind the women he loves--his mother, Ethel (Janet Wright), and his new girlfriend, Christina (Diane Lane)--but has no choice, as he owes his ex-wife thousands in back alimony. Bobby and Christina can't start their new life together until he severs the ties with his old one, although he's well aware (call it a feeling, a premonition he and Christina share) that if he steps foot aboard the Andrea Gail one more time, he will have no life at all. (Junger, like Wittliff, did amp up the melodrama; that's one thing book and film share.)

The rest of the crew disappears behind the raindrops and surging seas. The actors--even Reilly and Fichtner as feuding shipmates, another fabrication--might as well have been as computer-generated as the surging seas. They barely speak at all, except to yell at each other or curse Tyne's bad luck. We care so little for them, we're not even bothered by the fact that we never even see them die. They simply disappear: One minute they're up to their neck in water; the next, we're at the memorial service, bidding farewell to complete strangers. Were Petersen less concerned with his effects and with teasing us with half-assed heroics (Clooney cutting a loose anchor from the ship; the crew bolting a steel plate where a window once was) and more interested in his characters, perhaps their deaths would have had meaning, depth. Instead, they're just fisherman lost at sea; their deaths amount to nothing more than shrugs--save for that of Bobby, who survives long enough to deliver an internal monologue that disproves the notion that shit floats.

Wittliff and Petersen certainly are treading in dangerous waters: Junger, acting as truth-telling journalist, wasn't allowed to fictionalize the deaths of Tyne and his crew, which most likely happened about three days after radio contact was lost on October 28. He was forced to rely on historical texts and recollections of other captains and crews caught in the storm; he played it safe, softening the blows by insisting that maybe this happened and possibly that happened. But one can't make a film out of could-haves, out of theories and conjecture, so Wittliff has gone through Junger's book and plundered from its fact-checked pages in order to bend and break the truth.

No longer are shark attacks (which happened to Murphy, on another boat) and tales of men dragged through the sea with hooks caught in their hands just historical anecdotes, tough-guy stories meant to illustrate how dangerous life at sea can be for these fisherman. Now, they happen to the crew of the Andrea Gail; Junger's research has been brought to life before it drowns to death. It's as though their real-life tale wasn't dramatic enough, so Wittliff gives it more weight--enough to drag it to the bottom of the ocean. By the time Chris McDonald shows up as a Boston weatherman ("It would be a disaster of epic proportions. It would be...the perfect storm!"), it's hard not to chuckle at such cynical, calculated theatrics. It may have been the perfect storm, but this is the imperfect movie.

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