"Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink." --Samuel Taylor Coleridge
It may not be a perfect movie, but "The Perfect Storm" is a perfect title. The movie is all about water and storms. In fact, it's nothing but water and storms. By the time you're finished, you may be as waterlogged as the actors. But you can't say the movie doesn't deliver the goods as advertised. You want a storm? You've got a storm.
The story is based on a true incident from 1991 involving a Gloucester, Massachusetts, fishing boat, the Andrea Gail, and the biggest storm in recorded history. The trouble with the screen adaptation of Sebastian Junger's book about the event, however, is that director Wolfgang Petersen ("Das Boot," "In the Line of Fire," "Air Force One") has turned what might have been a riveting ninety-minute action yarn into an overlong, two-hour-plus melodrama. Not that audiences seemed to mind. It became one of the biggest moneymaking films of the summer of 2000.
Because the filmmakers felt they needed to do more than just show a boat in a storm, they began by attempting to develop the personalities of the Andrea Gail's crew. The hope was that if we cared enough about them, the subsequent dangers they faced would be all the more suspenseful and harrowing. Unfortunately, the character development is shallow, creating people more akin to soap-opera denizens than high-seas adventurers. Capt. Billy Tyne (George Clooney) gets the lead as skipper of the boat. Like Hemingway's protagonist in "The Old Man and the Sea," Tyne is a great fisherman now down on his luck and eager to prove his worth. For good measure, we're informed he is divorced and has two kids that he longs for. Clooney is earnest and stalwart in his portrayal. In Tyne's crew we find the expected character types. Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg) is a young man in love with a beautiful and devoted lady, Christina Cotter (Diane Lane). The first time we meet them, he's returning from a fishing trip and she jumps, literally, into his arms. You'd think he'd been away for years, as in the whaling days of the nineteenth century.
The opposite of Bobby is Bugsy (John Hawkes), a kind of loner and outcast of love, who finally meets someone who seems to care for him just before the fateful voyage. Dale "Murph" Murphy (John C. Reilly) is a man divorced from his wife because of his love for the sea. David "Sully" Sullivan (William Fichtner) is a seeming tough guy the captain asks to come aboard at the last minute, who immediately engages Murph in a feud. And Alfred Pierre (Allen Payne) is a fellow apparently from Jamaica and along for the ride. The least is made of him; I guess his color is supposed to say enough. Of peripheral interest is Linda Greenlaw (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a fellow fishing-boat captain and good friend of Tyne; and Bob Brown (Michael Ironside in one of his patented roles), the hard-assed owner of the Andrea Gail, who expects big hauls on every outing. Each of these men and women is given a moment in the spotlight to generate some sympathy later on, but the first thirty or forty minutes of the film come off as largely tedious, awkward, and maudlin.
Then the boat sets out to sea, and things come around. Several preliminaries take place before the big storm, though, as if to warm us up. There's a shark attack on one of the fishermen, followed by a man overboard and a heroic rescue. It's fairly routine excitement and seems unnecessary to the film's central narrative. Capt. Tyne is portrayed as something of fanatic, a sort of Capt. Ahab of the sailfish set. He takes the boat farther and farther out to find the big catch. And fish they get. Plus a lot more than they bargained for. To get back to port they have to sail straight through the middle of the "storm of the century," the worst convergence of storms in the history of the world!
The storm sequences are what we pay our money for, and they assuredly pay off. For forty-five minutes, the action never stops, and it is awesome in the extreme. Computer graphics integrate seamlessly with live-action footage to create some thrillingly intense scenes. But this isn't enough. Interwoven with the dilemma of the Andrea Gail are the plights of a distressed sailboat and a downed rescue helicopter. I'm not sure these subplots add a lot to the main story; perhaps they're meant to relieve the tension of the Andrea Gail's situation by taking our mind momentarily off Capt. Tyne and his crew. The only thing that really concerned me about these incidents is that one of them, the sailboat episode, wastes the talents of one of my favorite actresses, Karen Allen, in a part that allows her to utter maybe two words and then look worried and frazzled.
James Horner, who must be getting tired of writing music for watery disasters ("Titanic"), underlines every plot point with a huge crescendo of horns and strings. The score is big and lush and Romantic and seems primarily designed to sell a ton of musical-soundtrack CDs. One last reflection: Some of the actors appear to be affecting New England accents with varying degrees of success, and some, like Clooney, attempt no accent at all. The assumed accents can be more distracting than not.
I thought the video quality was a little distracting, too. Its color tones are natural enough, but they alternate between being brightly and vividly alive to being slightly dull and faded. Images are sometimes sharply outlined and sometimes fuzzy and blurred in this enhanced, widescreen, 2.40:1 ratio picture. There is always a small amount of color bleed-through, and there's even a slight haze at times over the screen. Interestingly, though, like everything else in the film, even the visual reproduction seems to improve during the long storm sequence.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio also improves as the movie goes along. During the first thirty minutes, you hardly notice it's stereo. But during the storm it becomes spectacular, waves crashing all around the listening area, noises coming at the viewer from every direction. Try this: turn both your TV and lights off and completely darken the room; then, just listen to the sounds of the storm. They're pretty impressive.
Warner Brothers provide a good collection of extra features to engage us, too. Let's see, there are three full-feature audio commentaries: one with director Wolfgang Petersen, another with author Sebastian Junger, and a third with visual effects supervisor Steen Fangmeier and visual effects producer Helen Ostenberg Elswit. Play through all three and you've extended your visit to the disc by another six hours, although I can't imagine too many casual home viewers doing such a thing. Then there are three documentaries: an "HBO First Look: The Perfect Storm," twenty minutes long, a fair look at behind-the-scenes goings on; another called "Witness to the Storm," four-and-a-half minutes long, using interviews with people who actually witnessed the "storm of the century"; and a third, "Creating an Emotion: Composer James Horner at Work," about four minutes long, taking us behind the film's music. Next, there's a photo montage, also with music, called "Yours Forever"; and a conceptual art gallery tour with director commentary. Then, there are extensive cast and crew bibliographies and filmographies, a storyboard gallery, DVD-ROM links to a theatrical Web site, thirty-nine scene selections, and a widescreen trailer. Seems enough. English and French are the spoken language and subtitle options.
The film concludes with a dedication "to the ten thousand Gloucestermen who died at sea since 1623." It's a touching tribute to a special people, a breed apart, men and women who obviously had the sea in their blood. "The Perfect Storm" may evidence wayward storytelling, but its heart and special effects are in the right place.