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.
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.