Perfect Storm, The (2000) ***
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen. Written by Bill Wittliff from the book by Sebastian Junger. Photography, John Seale. Editing, Richard Francis-Bruce. Production design, William Sandell. Music, James Horner. Cast: George Clooney (Capt. Billy Tyne), Mark Wahlberg (Bobby Shatford), Diane Lane (Christina Cotter), William Fichtner (Sully), Karen Allen (Melissa Brown), Allen Payne (Alfred Pierre), Bob Gunton (Alexander McAnally III), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Linda Greenlaw),John C. Reilly (Murph), et al. Produced by Paula Weinstein, Wolfgang Petersen and Gail Katz. A Warners release 130 minutes. PG-13.
On Halloween 1991 three huge, nasty, raging weather systems collided in the North Atlantic to produce a storm that has been variously called the storm of the century, the perfect storm (no callousness here, just a meteorologist's view) and other superlatives. It did a lot of damage at sea as well as on land.
Commercial fishing is a dangerous profession. In the film we see the real monument dedicated to the ten thousand Gloucester people who died at sea between 1626 and our day.
New Englander Sebastian Junger, who was living in Gloucester, Mass., at the time, wrote the best-selling book "The Perfect Storm" which focused on a swordfishing boat, the Andrea Gail, which ventured to sea at a risky time and eventually found itself in the eye of the storm.
The fishing season is about over. It has not been kind to Andrea Gail's Captain Tyne (Clooney) and his small crew. The boat returns to Gloucester after a last, unproductive outing. Most of their meager earnings goes to the ship owner (a political criticism here?). Captain Tyne decides to take a chance on a last sortie, in spite of the dangerously late season.
The first 40 or 45 minutes concentrate on the background, the people of Gloucester, variously sketched portraits and relationships of the fishermen of the Andrea Gail. Given the total length of the film (two-and-a-half hours) my first reaction to this focus on people was that it was too little. My second reaction was "too much." My third and last one was "just right." Less stress would have de-personalized the characters. More stress might be forcing the dosage by getting too generous with psycho-sociological issues among essentially normal working-class persons.
When the boat takes to the ocean again and the results are not brilliant, the Captain decides to push his luck (or is it unluck?) by pushing on to a dangerous place called the Flemish Cap which is at the edge of the fishing map. It's taking a big chance, but "that's where the fish are."
The perilous venture is an adventure, but the fishing is a bonanza of swordfish worth a quarter million dollars. Then the ice-making machine goes kaput while the weather turns very nasty. If the boat stays put and waits for better conditions, the haul will spoil. The men vote to return to port in spite of the weather -- which goes from bad to worse and from worse to unspeakably horrible.
The storm is the real raison d'etre of the movie. And it goes on and on. And it's a lulu, that is, a killer lulu. If, until it really hits, you thought that the film had its share of deja vu, the storm makes it a "jamais vu" ("never seen"). With a super-lavish, quite extraordinary use of special effects, tricks of the trade, digital manipulations, and the largest studio tank made even bigger, the images and their motions are stunning. While you know that it's all done with mirrors, you can't help getting gripped. The screen transports you from edge-of-the seat tension to nail-biting to heart-stopping reactions. Yes, it's only a movie, but its raw suspense gets scarier and scarier, what with waves reaching a height of one hundred feet, what with a pleasure craft, a small yacht on its way to Bermuda also getting hit by the Revenge of Neptune, what with totally convincing and heroic efforts of a Coast Guard helicopter trying to save the souls at sea, what with refueling the 'copter in the air... and much else which I will not mention.
It's funny how connections are made in one's mind. Somehow I kept thinking about The Cruel Sea. That was a best-seller by Nicholas Montsarrat, about convoy duty in the Royal Navy during WWII. A fine movie was made of the book in 1953, with a script by the great Eric Ambler.
Direct connections that the viewers can make after seeing the picture would be two different, very good one-hour programs on cable, one stressing the making of the movie, the other stressing the fishermen of Gloucester. And another private connection to me in "The Perfect Storm" is the memorial service where is sung "Eternal Father, Strong to Save" also known as "For Those in Peril on the Sea" which, with different words, was my school's song.
German-born director Petersen is good at "Sturm und Drang" (Storm and Stress) situations, and good too at motley people confined within one space. He did both with his "Das Boot" (1981) the best ever submarine film, with the fanciful "Air Force One," and does it here again, spectacularly. If he could show "Storm" in 3-D he'd have audiences bringing raincoats to the theater.
"Das Boot" was at first a very successful German TV miniseries, then became the major international hit. (It is, by the way, one of the most mispronounced titles in English, since it should sound like "boat" and not "boot"). Its success opened American doors to Petersen. There followed some ho-hum pictures, "The Neverending Story," "Enemy Mine, " and "Shattered." He bounced back with the thriller "In The Line Of Fire" starring Clint Eastwood back-slid with "Outbreak," and picked up again with "Air Force One."
Petersen is now an "American" director, but several of his earlier German movies, about 20 in 1967-78, mostly for German TV, were remarkable. I would strongly recommend "Die Konsequenz" (1977) and especially "Black and White Like Day and Night," (1978), starring Bruno Ganz in a fascinating, unusual work about obsession with chess, made just before "Das Boot." It is available from Facets (www.facets.org), the premier video source in the country. Like many of the earlier Petersen films it shows that he is not only an action director but a versatile filmmaker also interested in social, political, psychological and intimate subjects.