Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Perfect Storm (2000) [PG-13] ***

A film review by James Berardinelli for

I can still recall the power and fury of the storm now, nearly nine years after it struck - the rain playing an incessant staccato drum-beat on my windows, the wind shaking the shutters until they broke free and blew away into the mid-day's twilight gloom, and the lightning lancing the sky despite the chilly temperatures. The storm, which struck with a suddenness that wrecked almost every weatherman's three-day forecast, was given many names in the popular media, including the Great Halloween Nor'easter and the Storm of the Century. Meteorologists called it The Perfect Storm - an example of the kind of weather event that can only occur under the rarest of circumstances. In this case, it took the convergence of an eastward-moving cold front, a low pressure system off Sable Island, and a hurricane headed out to sea to create a monster.

In 1997, almost six years after the Great Halloween Nor'easter, journalist Sebastian Junger published The Perfect Storm, an account of some of the most dramatic and memorable events associated with the late-October 1991 weather system. His novel, which was uncompromisingly factual (he neither speculated on things that no living man had seen nor invented dialogue) gave insights into meteorology, the fishing industry, Coast Guard rescue operations, and how dozens of individuals were affected by the storm. The book, which is a taut thriller, became a surprising #1 best-seller. I read it based on word-of-mouth and concluded that it was not likely to be made into a movie, even though studios were trying to nail down the rights. I was, of course, wrong.

Given that I believed The Perfect Storm to be unfilmable, I approached the motion picture with a mixture of curiosity and skepticism. I was pleasantly surprised by the result. The movie is as faithful to the novel as a non-documentary could be, sticking close to the facts and excising few of the book's numerous subplots. Much of the detailed scientific jargon has been removed, but enough remains that we understand exactly what is happening and what it portends. And the sense of danger and urgency that compels a viewer to turn the pages of Junger's book is much in evidence throughout the 128-minute film.

When the summer is complete, Gladiator may stand out as the best mainstream release, but The Perfect Storm will almost certainly be the most intense. Directed by veteran filmmaker Wolfgang Petersen, who is responsible for the greatest submarine movie of all time, Das Boot, as well as American thrillers like In the Line of Fire and Air Force One, the film, which starts out slowly and calmly with 45 minutes of set-up, turns into a white-knuckle ride into a psychotic weather system. The Perfect Storm is not without flaws - there is too much going on and some of the invented dialogue is cheesy - but it is undeniably a thrilling experience.

The primary focus of the film (as well as the book) is the six-man crew of the sword-fishing vessel Andrea Gail -- Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg), Dale Murph Murphy (John C. Reilly), David Sully Sullivan (William Fichtner), Michael Bugsy Moran (John Hawkes), Alfred Pierre (Allen Payne), and the captain, Billy Tyne (George Clooney).

After returning to shore with a poor haul that earns him less than $6000 (and members of his crew under $3000), Tyne decides to take the Andrea Gail out one more time this season, intending to head east past his usual fishing grounds, the Grand Banks, all the way to the Flemish Cap, which is almost off most North American fishing charts. The five members of his crew grumble (in fact, one backs out and is replaced by Sullivan), but agree to come because they need the money. Shatford, urged by his girlfriend Christina (Diane Lane) to stay behind, almost isn't on the boat when it sails. As he tells Tyne, I love the sea, but I can't stand to be more than two feet from my woman.

The trip to the Flemish Cap is relatively eventless, but, as the Andrea Gail heads east, bad weather is brewing behind them, blocking their return home. Later, after they have filled their cargo holds and are on their way back, they lose radio contact and are unaware of the strength of the storm ahead of them. A Coast Guard rescue helicopter, dispatched to save the crew of the sailboat Mistral, is sent to look for the Andrea Gail and runs into more trouble than the experienced flying crew can handle. Meanwhile, Tyne is encountering the roughest seas of his career, with waves topping out at perhaps 100 feet.

The movie is at its best when it stays with the crew of the Andrea Gail, which it does most of the time. The opening half-hour, before the ship sails, does a good job introducing the characters and letting us know what makes them tick. The only piece of character interaction that isn't effective is the bickering between Murph and Sully (which leads to more than one passage of badly written dialogue). The sequences with these six men braving the rough seas and bad weather represent some of The Perfect Storm's most suspenseful moments. For those who are unaware of the Andrea Gail's fate, there will be more than one nail-biting moment.

The secondary plot, featuring the efforts of the Coast Guard to save the three person crew of the Mistral, and then locate the Andrea Gail, is less compelling because we don't have much invested in these characters. At times, this part of the movie seems like filler. The Mistral scenes probably could have been cut without damaging the flow of the story. They're useful in the book, but don't add much (except about seven minutes of running time) to the movie. Towards the end of the film, Petersen effectively cuts back and forth between the Coast Guard and the Andrea Gail to build tension.

Making use of impressive visuals (many of which were enhanced, if not generated altogether, by digital technology), The Perfect Storm gives a sense of the awe-inspiring power of a raging sea. With mountainous swells that dwarf even large boats and no place to hide or take refuge, the ocean can easily become a very dangerous place. As the scenes with the Coast Guard illustrate, issuing a Mayday is a far different thing than actually being rescued, and there are times when the rescuers may end up needing to be rescued. The Perfect Storm is not the first motion picture to pit man against the sea, but this is not a common genre, mainly because of the difficulty of crafting believable action. (One of the reasons The Poseidon Adventure is regarded as a camp classic is because of the unconvincing nature of the special effects.) It has been four years since a movie even remotely like this, Ridley Scott's White Squall, has reached movie screens. (Titanic doesn't count - it's a different sort of water disaster.)

In choosing his cast, Petersen has gone for recognizable but not A-list names. He wanted performers who weren't afraid to look grubby and unkempt on-screen - like they had gone for weeks without a proper bath. George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, re-united from Three Kings, top the marquee. Character actors like John C. Reilly and William Fichtner have significant roles. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays the captain of the Andrea Gail's sister ship, the Hannah Boden, and Michael Ironside is the man who owns both boats. Karen AllenBob Gunton, and Christopher McDonald all have small, supporting roles.

The Perfect Storm may be too much of a downer to become a huge summer hit, although that remains to be seen. Its box office potential relies more on the storytelling ability of Petersen than on the star power of a big name (unlike its chief head-to-head competition, The Patriot). The movie is exciting, engaging, and, at times, majestic, but it does not change the historical facts to make for a more crowd-pleasing story. For the first time since Das Boot, Petersen has taken his cast, crew, and cameras back into the water; the result is definitely not all wet.

Labels: action, adventure, drama, thriller, tragedy

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