Why would Hollywood make a movie about a group of dumb, smelly people from a depressed, depressing New England town, going after a bunch of fish? write several Epinioneers about THE PERFECT STORM. The answer, I hope, is because those dumb, smelly people are the kind who made America a country to be proud of. It amazed and saddened me that those Epinioneers were expressing these opinions on a Fourth of July Weekend. However, possibly a majority of Americans now see Patriotism as a matter of shooting Redcoats, blowing up Nazis, or fending off the attacks of Aliens, between sex and beer busts -- the more explosions the better.
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It may be that true Patriotism is something of the past, discounted heavily in The New Global Economy. Perhaps, it is just as well.
But, once upon a time, when the majority of us were on farms or in factories, there was great interest in stories of the natural events which affected the lives of working Americans. I remember a best selling documentary novel of 1937, The Storm by George Stewart, which was made into a so-so movie (THE STORM, Young, 1938) with Charles Bickford and Barton MacLane. I remember the interest my father, an electric lineman in the Midwest, had for that storm, born in the Sea of Japan, and eventually freezing a telephone repairman in the Sierras of California. (Little did we know, my father would almost lose his hands to frostbite atop a sixty foot pole in the Winter of '42.)
That was long ago. And yet, though most of us make our living now in offices, at computer screens, selling products made someplace else, in professions, or with conglomerate manufacturing enterprises, there must be some interest in people who risk their lives daily to put fish on our tables. It is such an interest which Sabastian Junger tapped in his best selling documentary novel, The Perfect Storm.
Junger is a college-educated thrill-seeker, who took up lumberjacking. While laid up from an injury, the idea of writing about the dangers of fishing at sea came to him, as he thought about men with whom he had worked. "People who are exhilarated by risk . . . are almost invariably college-educated," he writes in the August National Geographic Adventurer. "They choose their risks . . . . The fishermen I wrote about -- they dread the risk part of their job."
THE PERFECT STORM begins in October 1991, with the return to port in Gloucester, Massachusetts, of the ironically named fishing boat, the Andrea Gail. We see a monument with the names of 10, 000 Gloustermen who have died at sea since 1632. We meet the crew, see the unloading of the catch, the settling of shares of profit on the docks; go to The Crow's Nest, a bar where girlfriends and wives sometimes wait for their men.
Captain Billy Tyne (George Clooney) of the Andrea Gail is unhappy with his poor catch of Swordfish, his boat's owner Bob Brown (Michael Ironside) more so. A decision is made to return to sea within three days, even though Winter is almost upon them. Tyne fires one man; brings another, David "Sully" Sullivan (William Fichtner), on board; and makes ready for sea.
In the weathered Crow's Nest, the crew are drinking their pay, meeting their families, and making out with their girlfriends. Sad eyed Dale "Murph" Murphy (John C. Reily) borrows his small son from his newly ex-wife and brings him in for an hour with Dad. Mike "Bugsy" Moran (John Hawkes) is trying to hook up with Irene "Big Red" Johnson (Rusty Schwimmer). West Indian Alfred Pierre (Allen Payne) is doing all right with a gorgeous blonde. Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg), son of the bar owners, is upstairs with his girl Christine (Diane Lane). All are reluctant but prepared to go when Captain Tyne calls them.
What they don't know is that Grace, the last tropical hurricane of the Season, is staggering North, while an Arctic cold front is moving South, and the first Winter storm from the Gulf of Alaska is sweeping Southeast across the Great Lakes and the Maritime Provinces of Canada. It is this unheard of confluence that prompts TV Weatherman Todd Gross (Christopher MacDonald), sitting comfortably before his charts with donuts and coffee, to coin a phrase: "The Perfect Storm."
Big hype for the Six O'Clock News!
But, by that time, the Andrea Gail's crew is far out to sea, still unhappy with the catch, and moving to the Northeast, toward the reaches of the Finnish Cap, unaware that the greatest storm on their fishing grounds in modern times is closing in behind them.
This film does not resemble TWISTER (De Bont, 1996) as some critics have insisted. Its mood is not giddy; its tone is somber, dark.
Other critics have objected to the ten minutes or so devoted to the work of fishermen. However, when do we see people these days actually doing real work in movies? They are usually fighting tigers in an arena, rocking and rapping, playing games, or shooting people. Director Wolfgang Petersen, no stranger to the sea (DAS BOOT, 1981), shows us how Captain Tyne uses his electronic Loran "fishfinder," and how the Andrea Gail's port and starboard fishing masts are deployed, the work of the men setting large hooks on the long lines, the gaffing and gutting of Swordfish, their storage in the ice lockers.
Cross cut with these scenes, throughout the film, we follow a trio of heedless yuppies on a sailing sloop, headed for the Bahamas to the south. Alexander McAnnally III (Bob Gunton) tells his companions Melissa Brown and Edie Bailey (Karen Allen and Cherry Jones) that he never pays attention to radio weather reports. He just sets his compass and steers the proverbial steady course. Boy, are they soon in trouble, crying frantically, "May Day, May Day!" The sloop's self-righting keel brings them bobbing up again and again in the savage waters. And fortunately, for them, a U. S. Coast Guard Cutter and a Rescue Helicopter are nearby.
Critics have said these scenes are superfluous, but their purpose is to suggest how time and resources which might have gone to help a working vessel like the Andrea Gail were committed to the rescue the three diletantes. The helicopter rescues them, but when attempting to refuel in the air to take on a new mission, the helicopter goes down at sea, and the Andrea Gail's last hope for outside help is doomed. Six seamen and a helicopter pilot may have died so that these three amateurs could exercise their God given American right to try to have rum and cokes in the Bahamas during Hurricane Season. These scenes, alternating with those in the boat, at the TV News Center, above a huge container cargo ship and back at The Crow's Nest Bar, abet what movies do best: giving us empathy, variety and simultaneous action.
The Andrea Gail might still have survived had she rode out the storm on its eastern edges. Unfortunately, the breakdown of an antiquated ice machine (a foolish economy on the part of the boat's owner) causes Captain Tyne to batten down the hatches on a 60,000 pound catch to plow directly Southeast for home, right into the point where the three storms will converge. Radio warnings from Tyne's sister boat, skippered by pal Linda Greenleaf (Mary Elizabeth Mastriantonio), are lost when the Andrea Gail's radio mast is torn away. Then, a parted cable causes the port fishing mast to lash the wheel house, smashing its windows. This event allows tons of seawater to beat in on Captain Tyne and mate Bobby Shatford, hindering their efforts to keep the boat's bow into the waves. By the time, they decide to come about and ride a following sea, they have gone too far; it is too late.
Sabastian Junger, and the makers of the movie, freely admit that once the boat's radio went out, what the crew did afterward is conjecture. They maintain that, given what other crews have done, what is known of Tyne and his men, and what standard procedures called for, THE PERFECT STORM must be close to the truth. It sounds plausible to me, and the film is, for the most part, an example of the cliche, seeing is believing.
Once, in another life, I was First (and only) Mate to Captain Norman Stuart MacDonald of The Crow, in a comically ill-fated fishing adventure. We were sailing the Pacific Coast (which generally lives up to its name), and we never witnessed anything like the seas Captain Tyne and his crew endured, but for the last 20 minutes of THE PERFECT STORM, I was at sea again, experiencing the fear, adrenalin, hope and hopelessness of fighting the ocean. Again, some critics (feet firmly on dry land) have complained the crew meets their fate too calmly, with equanimity. But seamen must be stoics. You never give up dreaming of the fish; the weather is always against you; something always breaks down; you are cold and wet, a little spaced out, usually a bit queasy; you work hard and get very little real rest; you see your fellows at risk of being killed or maimed as a matter of course.
I consider those days at sea my farewell to youth.
And thus, I was very moved by the faces of the women as they sense from the TV that their men are gone; I (uncharacteristically) wept over Captain Greenleaf's eulogy at the Church Service; I swelled with undeserved pride when the surviving Captain points her vessel to seaward, sounding her horn, as Captain Tyne did, to exchange good-bye salutes with the Lighthouseman's boy.
A Final Note: Public relations releases suggest that George Clooney is like Spencer Tracy in CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS (Fleming, 1937), but I find him far more like Burt Lancaster might have been in a similar role.
Clooney has gone out of his way in interviews to defend THE PERFECT STORM against its supposed weaknesses. He points out that, unlike many blockbusters since RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC (Spielberg, 1981), it does pay homage to films like CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS by carefully developing in its first hour the nature of the fishermen's work and character. He explains that the prosaic portrayals and dialogue of the film reflect the fact that, though the men died, their wives, children, and girlfriends live on in that "depressed, depressing town." It would be unfair to the men's memory to present them as deep, wisdom spouting heroes. It would insult the Loved Ones to invent melodrama and intrigue, where non existed in life. That choice seems right and fair to me.
THE PERFECT STORM, despite certain failings in camera placement and staging, is the best Big Movie of the Summer Season. *If you have compassion and appreciation for how ordinary hard working Americans, our true modern day patriots, meet their fate, you will agree with me.
It succeeds on several levels better than any of the others.
*May 24, 2002: The firemen and police of 9-1-1 might be added to that group of "hard working Americans." Hey, the finally caught our attention!
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