[Written for Film.com]
The most authentic thing in The Perfect Storm is the fishing. The movie’s strong on process: the fixing of bait, the hauling up of lines, the stowing of gutted swordfish in ice. The detail in these sequences is briny and gunky, like the matted beards of the fishermen; it has a natural cinematic appeal, because movies excel at showing how things work.
The fishing sequences stand out because much of what comes before rings absolutely false, and the storm that follows is pure thrill ride. The Perfect Storm is based on Sebastian Junger’s true-life best-seller, and the filmmakers have spoken of their reverence for the real people and places described in the book; location shooting took place in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and some of the locals who lost family in the storm of October 1991 were employed by the movie as extras.
Could this have something to do with why the characters seem so fake? Perhaps the hokey set-up in the film’s opening reels comes directly from a reluctance to intrude on a real tragedy, or besmirch the memories of dead souls. The film’s Gloucester, centered almost entirely on a bar called the Crow’s Nest, is full of chowder-eating stereotypes in truckers’ caps and rain slickers, prone to hard livin’ and premonitions about sending the fishing boats out for one last run in the season.
A Discovery Channel documentary on the real “perfect storm” suggests that these stereotypes are not particularly far off the mark, and that there really were ominous signs that led people to mutter “I got a bad feelin’” before the crew shipped out. It still feels phony. Poor Diane Lane, as the girlfriend of fisherman Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg), has the worst of it, worrying through the entire film. George Clooney plays Billy Tyne, captain of the Andrea Gail, who figures he’ll change his lousy luck by striking out for the far-flung fishing grounds called the Flemish Cap. His arrival in New England coincides with the freakish collision of Hurricane Grace and two other storms, which caused the title of the book.
The storm is the reason to see the movie. The Gloucester sequences may remind us that Wolfgang Petersen is the man who directed Enemy Mind and Shattered, but the storm brings us back to Das Boot. Spectacular computer-generated waves create a living nightmare, and scenes shot inside a huge water tank toss the actors about with alarming abandon. (In one scene, Clooney is dunked in and out of the water while frantically hanging on to some sort of apparatus; when he surfaces, he looks like Gregory Peck’s Captain Ahab, emerging from the sea on the flank of the whale.) This is wild stuff, and it’ll be utterly diminished by home video, which is one reason to endure the brutal exposition in a theater.
The Perfect Storm has a few other good things, like Andrea Gail crewmen John C. Reilly and William Fichtner, affirming their already-solid credentials as invaluable character actors. Clooney’s charisma levels are at fairly low heat, but perhaps that’s intentional; his Billy Tyne is no heroic sea salt, but the kind of guy who might just screw up big-time. Had the role been played by Clint Eastwood or Mel Gibson, we would’ve assumed he’d get his boat back to port. Clooney’s likability shines through in the storm sequences, but he can’t get his mouth around a speech that communicates his love of the sea, an awkward piece of Jack London lite. Like so many things about this movie, that speech is intended to deepen our understanding of the character and ennoble his quest, but winds up sounding as real as the proverbial fish story.