Sebastian Junger’s bestseller The Perfect Storm is a first-rate piece of journalism — compact and packed, loaded with anecdotes about life on fishing boats, the effects of a hurricane, and so on (he even tosses in a pretty frightening passage on what drowning feels like). Junger assembled all this information around a void — the void left by the Halloween Storm, the October 1991 convergence of three volatile weather events that destroyed, among other things, the Gloucester swordfishing boat the Andrea Gail. Aside from the basic fact that the boat was lost at sea (only a couple of fuel cans were ever recovered), nothing is known about what happened to the ship or the men aboard. Junger’s account is mainly informed conjecture about what might have happened. The new movie version is conjecture, too, but it’s informed by Hollywood conventions. The Perfect Storm, competently directed by Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, Air Force One), comes across like Apollo 13 without radio contact and with a downer ending.
The characters are defined chiefly by action — what they do under pressure tells us who they are — but since they behave more or less like generic movie people, what does that really tell us? Despite its poignant basis in fact, The Perfect Storm is only a small notch above Armageddon and many other disaster thrillers. The real-life men are recast as stereotypes: Captain Billy Tyne (George Clooney), the hard-bitten veteran skipper who wants to go out for one last big haul; Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg), an eager rookie with a passionate girlfriend (Diane Lane) waiting at home; loyal, fuzzy-wuzzy Murph (John C. Reilly); shifty troublemaker Sully (William Fichtner, whose features have doomed him to playing shifty guys); bedraggled loser Bugsy (John Hawkes), who can’t even get laid before he ships out; and the West Indian Alfred Pierre (Allen Payne), who has, I think, a grand total of three distinct lines of dialogue.
The nervous grouchiness of men at sea, dealing with a lethal natural menace while rubbing each other’s nerves raw, probably couldn’t be handled better than it was in Jaws, and The Perfect Storm doesn’t come close. (Twenty-five years later, you remember Quint and Brody and Hooper a hell of a lot more vividly than you’ll remember Billy or Bobby after a week.) There isn’t a bummer in the cast, but all of the actors play second fiddle to the elements, and Petersen has cast a variety of intriguing actresses only to shove them into the margins. Diane Lane, for instance, tries so hard to do something fresh with her stock girlfriend-in-waiting that she overplays almost every scene she’s in. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, as a nearby boat captain, has a radio microphone grafted to her hand for most of the film (it’s easy to forget she’s supposed to be playing Linda Greenlaw, an author in her own right); and it’s nice to see Cherry Jones (Cradle Will Rock) and Karen Allen getting work, but why waste them as two women trapped on an imperilled sailboat who have almost no dialogue?
If you go to see bad weather, The Perfect Storm gives you probably a good 45 minutes of it, as the Andrea Gail is batted around the sea like a toy boat in the bathtub of a sadistic kid. We feel batted around, too, and the effect, cumulatively, is less overwhelming than overbearing. The movie devolves into spectacle, a series of CGI shots for us to ooh and aah at. If we know the story’s outcome, all the strenuous efforts the men go through seem like a sick joke, but the movie works hard to ennoble them anyway. The climax is monotonous and punishing — after 45 minutes of waves hammering the boat, you say, Okay, we get it.
The grinding sameness of the violent sea makes you appreciate James Cameron’s handling of the chaos in Titanic, which had some incongruous visual beauty going for it. The only hint of beauty in The Perfect Storm — and it’s a chilling moment, and George Clooney’s moment of glory — comes when the Andrea Gail abruptly enters glass-smooth waters and sunny skies. Everyone on board is ecstatic except Billy, who knows the worst is yet to come; they’ve just moved into a safe, small pocket in between storms. Clooney’s wordless horror in the face of sunshine is more terrifying than anything the special-effects whizzes came up with.
But The Perfect Storm isn’t truly fatuous until the very end, when it’s suggested that sweet, saintly Bobby somehow contacted his girlfriend in a dream before he drowned. Of course, we don’t clearly see any of the men die, presumably out of respect for their families. But if you’re going to respect real-life tragedy, you don’t make a much-hyped summer movie out of it. This empty memorial to those lost at sea is really only about the realistic mayhem made possible by computer imaging. For all its technical advances, The Perfect Storm can’t do what Junger did: make you feel what it’s like to work on the sea and die under it.