The Perfect Storm is a big Hollywood movie about a big Atlantic storm and the men and women who were swept up in its catastrophic wake. It’s meant to be about heroes and blue-collar heart and eternal love and all the other important lessons gleaned from James Cameron‘s Titanic, but with a smaller ship and no Celine Dion. The story this time is that of a sword-fishing boat called the Andrea Gail and the six-man crew that had the misfortune to be on board in October 1991. Mainly the film is about cool digitized effects, lots of bad writing and Hollywood’s mounting inability to tell stories that have any connection to the real world and the people who inhabit it. There‘s a lot of blather about separating the men from the boys, or the tough guys from the sissies, or, really, just men from women. The whole thing is kitsch of the most pricey sort, and it’s a good guess that it will be a smash. Not least because by the time George Clooney, playing the boat captain, bulges his eyes and screams, “Come on, you bitch!” at a tsunami of a computer-generated wave, the film has transformed from just another adventure yarn into a delirious paroxysm of sexual panic.
Call them Billy, Bobby, Bugsy, Sully, Alfred and Murph, the six fishermen who, conforming to the freeze-dried characterizations familiar from the wonderful world of modern action movies, could also be called Crusty, Feisty, Wimpy, Scary, Black Guy and Pigheaded Dope. Two days after they return from a monthlong expedition on which they barely break even, the six again head out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, in hopes of finding more fish. Their loved ones are pissed, their colleagues skeptical. Chewing on her Boston vowels as if they were bubble gum, Diane Lane, playing a spunky divorcee named Chris, wraps her legs around her man, Bobby (Mark Wahlberg), and tries not to let go. By the time the Andrea Gail sets sail, though, it‘s not just the women who are weeping — the violins are sobbing and the cellos are wailing. The film’s publicity materials contain a “special request to the press” to not give away the ending, but such caution seems irrelevant since composer James Horner, late of Titanic, seems to believe he‘s scoring the relaunch of the big boat itself.
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, whose career has ranged widely from the grit of Das Boot to the gloss of Air Force One, The Perfect Storm announces itself as a true story, and it is, though only in the sense that a Xerox is true to the original photograph. The essential narrative is taken from the Sebastian Junger book of the same name, a breezy blend of facts and poetic license that focuses on the crew of the Andrea Gail, their desperate landlocked families, a sailboat with a three-person crew and dozens of Air National Guardsmen, all of whom to varying degrees weathered the collision between a hurricane and a nor’easter. Screenwriter Bill Wittliff, who‘s best known for the Lonesome Dove television miniseries, follows the arc of the book, and tries to paint in the personalities that remain opaque on the page. Wittliff fudges some details, omits others but, in an effort to feed the movie gods, or at least follow the dicta that Hollywood characters must be no more complicated than, say, Lassie, he downplays the reason the Andrea Gail got caught in the storm to begin with. As it turns out, Captain Tyne and company chugged out far beyond their normal fishing grounds because they’d crapped out the last time and they wanted to get paid. There‘s also a whiff of a suggestion that the captain may have been mad, which is neatly hinted by a dark look that Clooney lifts from Paul Muni’s exit in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.
Junger does his best to mute the brute reality of commercial fishing, but the blame for that light catch lay less with Tyne than with an industry that would soon overfish the Atlantic swordfish population to the brink of endangerment. Commercial fishing has as much in common with sport fishing as factory farming has to do with wringing chicken necks. As with 98 percent of the commercial swordfish catch, the swordfish hooked by the Andrea Gail were snared on “long lines,” fishing lines that stretch for miles and are baited with hundreds of hooks. Although not as disastrous as drift nets, long lines snag indiscriminately — immature swordfish, sea turtles, even whales. It isn‘t exactly the stuff of The Old Man and the Sea, Melville or even a lazy afternoon trolling for trout on Lake Superior, and it’s easy to see why, in the face of such bad news, the filmmakers wanted to prettify these various truths.
Petersen, who in Das Boot did fine work in the claustrophobic quarters of a German submarine, does his most personal work here below deck. There‘s something intrinsically satisfying about watching the crew load up the groceries at the beginning of the trip, prepping the boat for its launch, packing milk and meat into the same ice in which their gutted catch will soon be stored. As in police procedurals or films in which thieves painstakingly crack safes, it’s the small stuff, the technical minutiae, that resonates, that hold Petersen‘s interest more than the numerous shots of synthetic waves smacking the boat silly. Perhaps it’s because the rest of it feels so superfluous. The film is padded with contrived scenes — a shark gone amok, a man gone overboard — that seem only to exist because a movie about a boat in a storm would likely run half as long. It is, after all, one thing to write a book about a storm and luxuriate in descriptions of rogue waves and meteorological predictions. It‘s quite another to shoot a film in which huge swaths of celluloid will be filled in only after you’ve wrapped; still another, apparently, to make a movie about flesh-and-blood men who failed themselves and the people they love.
Which may, in the end, account for all the overwrought sexual imagery and metaphors. The Perfect Storm finally comes off less like an ode to the modern hero than a lament about how the modern world fails men, robbing them of their places as lovers, fathers and workers. Not for nothing is the most successful swordfish boat captain in Gloucester a woman. Given this, it‘s ironic that in their eagerness to turn the fishermen into working-class heroes who are in it for glory rather than lucre, the filmmakers slight the readymade heroes in their midst: the Air National Guardsmen who jump out of helicopters to scoop ill-placed sailors from the sea. But like the yachting crew, who are tossed about the screen whenever the action on the Andrea Gail grinds to a halt, the rescuers never emerge as individuals. This is frustrating, not only given the inherent drama of men jumping into the Atlantic, but because after the storm reaches its full measure, much of what unfolds on the fishing boat consists of the men either screaming at one another or hunkered down below as, in a surreal touch, the VCR whirs on, seemingly without end, with the image of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name.
The Eastwood image is a nice touch, not only because Petersen directed our reigning icon of retrenched American masculinity in the thriller In the Line of Fire, but because The Perfect Storm teems with anxiety about what it takes to be a man. It‘s an anxiety broadcast in the coils of ropy muscles, in the grizzled beards and grizzlier manners, in the ludicrous fights and chandeliers bouncing off the ceiling from bouts of vigorous coitus. There’s anxiety as well in the captain‘s sneers, in the way he repeatedly chides his men for acting like boys, and how he seems to shrivel, even to lose reason, in the face of his female rival’s success. And there‘s something more than just anxiety, something strange and freaky, in the way he saves his tenderness for the storm itself, whose abuse he seems to welcome like a desperate lover. (“She’s not going to let us out!”) By the time the military guys are shouting “Get it up, get it up!” to one another during one particularly harrowing rescue, while the ocean churns and foams, surging and sucking them into the void, it‘s hard to feel that Hollywood is rarely more nutty and entertaining than when it’s operating so completely and unconsciously in the dark. In this film, where being a man is a matter of life and death and being a woman is a matter of metaphor, everyone ends up stiffed.