On the list of books I’ve enjoyed that I thought had no chance of successful film adaptation, The Perfect Storm ranked right near the top. It’s a story that sets out with the knowledge of a sad ending, and worse yet, the majority of the film is at sea – historically, this has resulted in such major cinematic contributions as Captain Ron and White Squall. It’s a book that relies on balancing this tragedy with the harsh but undeniably majestic force of the storm, and the sheer bravado and heroism of the men who perform at-sea rescues.
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Wolfgang Petersen’s film The Perfect Storm is indeed a failure, but not for the reasons I suspected. The action at sea is incredible, and even on my regrettably small 23” TV it is awe-inspiring and impressive. The cast has some impressive performers, and there seem to be very few things added in for filmic purposes, which displays remarkable restraint in this age of film making.
It’s not the sole culprit, but when it comes to the script, I can only shake my head and laugh. The script should be bound and distributed for Bad Screenwriting 101. Screenwriter Bill Wittliff is, I’m sure, a lovely human being, but he simply isn’t a good screenwriter. As just one example, there is literally an old sea dog who sits at the local bar, a crusty old codger who looks like a cartoon of what an old sailor is. He mutters to himself and says prophetic things, while looking into his drink. The rest of the film’s dialogue is seemingly made of speeches and trite sayings, instead of…oh, I don’t know…dialogue.
Before I trash the whole film, it’s worth summarizing the plot just a skosh. Captain Billy Tyne (George Clooney) has just returned to Gloustecer with another small load of swordfish. We know it’s a meager haul because another ship, manned by Linda Greenlaw (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) has brought home a huge catch. His crew is, unsurprisingly, a motley sort – Bobby Shatford (Mark Walhberg) rushes home to see his girlfriend Christina (Diane Lane), while Murphy (John C. Reilly) stands around looking for his ex-wife and son. Bugsy Moran (John Hawkes) can’t find anyone to cozy up with, instead watching others walk upstairs at The Crow’s Nest to shack up. Tyne is embarrassed at his haul, and his boss is none too happy either, suggesting that he might not let Tyne captain The Andrea Gail for much longer if he doesn’t pick it up. Responding, Tyne decides to head right back out, for one last haul before the end of the season, and pressures his crew to join him. None of them are too happy about it, least of all Bobby, who is leaving his girlfriend Christina, who is terrified of the risk he’ll incur on the ship.
Along the way, Tyne picks up another crew member, Sully (William Fichtner) who clashes instantly with Murphy, perhaps because they both have the most stereotypical Irish sailor names on board. The sophomoric reason for this clash is, of course, that they will have to bond and help each other through future trying times, and of course this quickly becomes the case.
Of course, the trying times specifically surround the weather – Tyne sails the Andrea Gail directly into the largest storm in recent memory, a storm called “The Storm of The Century,” or alternately, “The Perfect Storm.”
It’s not the fact that we know what’s going to happen that makes this film such a disaster. (Pun intended.) There are instead two major reasons for the failure – the first is the aforementioned abhorrent script. The second is that director Petersen is perhaps too faithful to the book – a slight I rarely slap onto adaptations. In his book, Sebastian Junger moves from the crew of the Andrea Gail to other characters, notably the Coast Guard and the intense training that the rescue teams go through to prepare for at sea rescues. It’s utterly fascinating, and makes the characters of the rescue team vibrant and heroic. Of course, Petersen has no opportunity to detail their background, but we see them anyway attempting several rescues, including moving towards the Andrea Gail. However, we don’t really know anything about these people before tragedy is in their face, and it’s impossible to feel much for them. We’ve also seen them rescue three sailors on a private boat, heading for Bermuda. This entire episode may have been in the book (I honestly can’t remember) but it is a complete energy suck out of the film. This film isn’t about these people, and every second of screen time they use detracts from the urgency of the events unfolding towards the crew of the Andrea Gail. Finally, we also spend far too much time with, of all people, the meteorologist, played by Christopher McDonald. It is he who gets to utter, in a hushed whisper, that this could be the perfect storm. Whoop de friggin doo. That’s how little the viewer cares at that point, even as we understand what’s about to unfold.
The acting is generally decent, especially considering the horrid material the actors were given. Clooney in particular has some wretched speeches, and doesn’t embarrass himself too much, and Walhberg, Reilly and Fichtner similarly handle themselves maturely and professionally. Mastrantonio has a useless role, and although it’s nice to see her working these days, I’m not sure this performance will gain her many more roles. Likewise, the always gorgeous Diane Lane is given a role devoid of any personality besides “Girlfriend” and has no opportunity to add much else to that.
Worth mentioning also are a few liberties that the film makers took with the last minutes of many of the crew’s lives – they range from trite to offensive, and the speech Bobby thinks while floating is so pathetically melodramatic that I literally couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
The Perfect Storm isn’t completely useless – the cinematography and sound are both superb, and the CGI waves look vibrant, realistic and quite frankly, terrifying. The film truly does show what life as a fisherman must be like, albeit in trite, overdone brush strokes. However, it insults the viewers (and, likely, the memories of those lost) with a wretched script and several directorial missteps. It’s worth watching for the experience, but have a good book around as a backup.
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