The press kit for The Perfect Storm contains the damnedest thing I've ever read. Right at the top, there is a "special request to the press" that reads, in full: "Warner Bros. Pictures would appreciate the press' cooperation in not revealing the ending of this film to their readers, viewers or listeners."
So stop reading if that's going to spoil your day.
All due apologies, but The Perfect Storm's plot boils down to a single sentence: In late October 1991, six swordfishermen from Gloucester, Massachusetts, aboard a ship named the Andrea Gail, collide with three converging storms and die.
This should come as no grand revelation, as Wolfgang Petersen's film is based upon Sebastian Junger's 1997 best seller of the same name, which itself told "a true story of men against the sea," as the cover heralded. Junger even wrote a story for the New York Times in April in which he expressed his relief that Petersen did not give the movie a happy Hollywood ending. "I was worried that not wanting to kill off a big-name actor, they would have some of the Andrea Gail crew survive," Junger wrote, recounting his initial conversation with the director. "He had no intention of departing from the book, he told me."
So now you know: George Clooney dies at the end of The Perfect Storm. That is the least of this movie's problems.
What's astonishing is how faithless the movie is to Junger's book; no doubt fans of the book will leave the film awed by its computer-generated waves and animatronic fish but, also, dumfounded by how unessential the six dead men are to the story's telling.
Captain Billy Tyne (Clooney), Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg), Dale Murphy (John C. Reilly), David "Sully" Sullivan (William Fichtner), Mike "Bugsy" Moran (John Hawkes) and Alfred Pierre (Allen Payne) are barely characters at all. Screenwriter Bill Wittliff (The Black Stallion, Lonesome Dove, and a handful of Willie Nelson films) has turned them into stick figures who utter banal clichés ("Here's where we separate the men from the boys"; "We're starting to get an unlucky feeling out here") on a doomed boat. Junger took great care to make them human and give them resonance; Wittliff turns them into soggy pieces of cardboard.
Inexplicably, he has decided to turn the book's footnotes -- stories of ships in the immediate area, also caught in the turbulent seas in which deep-green waves resemble white-capped mountains -- into entire chapters. Scenes aboard the Andrea Gail are now intercut with scenes aboard a struggling sailboat and its crew's rescue by a Coast Guard helicopter, which doesn't even appear in the book until after the Andrea Gail's crew is presumed dead.
Certainly, it is a risky proposition to compare and contrast a film and the book upon which it's based, especially when it is a true story; it's far too easy to play the that-didn't-happen game, to get caught up in discerning truth from fiction instead of allowing the film to take us someplace else, someplace never before seen or felt. Besides, Junger's book was far from perfect: At times, it read more like a weather report playing hide-and-seek with a narrative and, at times, like a historian's term paper. But the book worked because Junger never tried to make heroes of his characters; they were just men trying to make a living. At its best, the book reads like a protracted eulogy, a hopeless journey with an inevitably sad ending.
Petersen and Wittliff, in contrast, have turned The Perfect Storm into a rollicking adventure yarn (Clooney, in scenes, is Batman and Superman), and in doing so, they've all but abolished any reason for us to care for these men. They're but fodder for special effects, corpses to be disposed of when the film has ended. Clooney never becomes Billy Tyne -- a counselor of drug-addicted teens who became a fisherman at his wife's insistence, only to lose her when he became addicted to the water -- because there is no character to become. All we know of him is that he's a fisherman on a losing streak; he is about to become even unluckier.
More gallingly, Wittliff adds in a romance for Tyne the book never even hinted at: Tyne flirts with Linda Greenlaw (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, looking as though she's in The Abyss outtakes), real-life captain of the Andrea Gail's sister ship. The two were indeed friends, colleagues who shared risk and reward, but this bubbling-beneath-the-surface love affair exists now to give Tyne's death resonance: The woman who loved him is left behind, alone.
Like Junger, the filmmakers try to keep Bobby Shatford in the center of the storm: He's our stand-in, our ticket aboard the Andrea Gail. He doesn't want to leave behind the women he loves -- his mother, Ethel (Janet Wright), and his new girlfriend, Christina (Diane Lane) -- but has no choice, as he owes his ex-wife thousands in back alimony. Bobby and Christina can't start their new life together until he severs the ties with his old one, although he's well aware (call it a feeling, a premonition he and Christina share) that if he steps foot aboard the Andrea Gail one more time, he will have no life at all.
The rest of the crew disappears behind the raindrops and surging seas. The actors -- even Reilly and Fichtner as feuding shipmates, another fabrication -- might as well have been computer-generated like the surging seas. They barely speak at all, except to yell at each other or curse Tyne's bad luck.
Wittliff and Petersen certainly are treading in dangerous waters: Junger, acting as truth-telling journalist, wasn't allowed to fictionalize the deaths of Tyne and his crew, which most likely happened about three days after radio contact was lost on October 28. He was forced to rely on historical texts and recollections of other captains and crews caught in the storm; he played it safe, softening the blows by insisting that maybe this happened and possibly that happened. But one can't make a film out of could-haves, out of theories and conjecture, so Wittliff has gone through Junger's book and plundered from its fact-checked pages to bend and break the truth.
It's as though their real-life tale wasn't dramatic enough, so Wittliff gives it more weight -- enough to drag it to the bottom of the ocean. It may have been the perfect storm, but this is the imperfect movie.
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