Directed by: Wolfgang Petersen
Starring: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, John C Reilly, Diane Lane, William Fichtner, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, John Hawkes
Director Wolfgang Petersen seems to be particularly drawn to waterlogged storytelling. No less than three of his most well-known films are set at sea: his classic submarine movie Das Boot, the Poseidon remake from 2006, and of course this one, 2000’s The Perfect Storm. So strap yourself in for some hot and heavy fishing action with captain Clooney at the wheel.
The Perfect Storm is “based on a true story” about the fishing vessel Andrea Gail and its crew, who were lost at sea during the “Perfect Storm” of October 1991. I apologize if that spoils the story for you, but it’s not like it’s a big secret, eh?
George Clooney plays captain Billy Tyne, and as the film opens he and his crew return to Gloucester, Massachusetts, after a not very successful fishing run. The meager catch means less money for everyone involved, particularly the rookie Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg), who badly needs the money to pay off debts and start a new life with girlfriend Christina (Diane Lane). Despite the fishing season nearing its end, Captain Tyne convinces his men to come along for one last expedition — and everyone, including the audience, immediately gets bad feelings about this one.
Tyne and his men — and in fact everyone in the movie with the exception of Michael Ironside, who plays the owner of the Andrea Gail — are blue collar, salt-of-the-earth type people, rough around the edges but warm and caring at heart. Most of them seem to be divorced single parents, and apparently spend most of their spare time drinking at the local bar, The Crow’s Nest. Some of them even live there. Actually, they start the day with a quick beer or two before leaving on that fateful last voyage. No surprise, perhaps, that the film has been accused of painting fishermen in an unflattering light. Then again, characterization isn’t The Perfect Storm’s forte.
The Crow’s Nest scenes establish some relationships (Bobby and Christina; crewmember Bugsy and a random woman) and rivalries (crewmembers Murph and Sully can’t stand each other, but if any reason is given I sure can’t remember it) before we head out at sea. Nothing much happens on the way out, except more bickering between Murph and Sully, but the rotten luck seems to continue. They don’t catch much fish, and Murph almost loses his life when he is dragged overboard as his hand gets caught on a fishing hook. Can you guess who saves him…? And, oh yeah, a cousin of the shark in Jaws drops by and tries to take a bite out of Mark Wahlberg.
Captain Billy Tyne decides to head even further out to sea, to try his luck at the Flemish Cap. This is the kind of place that old, bearded geezers talk about in hushed tones at the Crow’s Nest: “Lots of fish, lots of weather”. Sure enough, the Andrea Gail strikes the motherlode, catching all the swordfish they had hoped for. Then the ice machine breaks down, forcing the crew to head back towards port. And then — the weather hits.
It turns out that a tornado is merging with two other storm systems to spawn “the perfect storm”, which an awed Boston meteorologist explains to his seemingly lethargic assistant in a couple of short scenes providing the scientific setup. And the Andrea Gail is headed straight into the worst of it.
However predictable the plot has been so far, this is where the movie comes into its own. The desperate fight against the elements is well realized, and the effects are very good. Shooting this one must have been a bitch for the actors, who are constantly being showered, drenched and drowned. Andrea Gail’s struggle is intercut with the efforts by a National Guard helicopter team to save three people aboard a small sailboat, the Mistral, which suddenly appears in the plot without any form of introduction and is also caught in the vicious storm. There are several good set-pieces and suspenseful sequences here, even though you don’t even know the names of some of the people involved.
The Perfect Storm fails completely when it comes to the characters, who range from one-note clichés to the totally anonymous, and there’s some cringeworthy dialogue to put up with as well. The attempts at earnestness feel contrived, and the epilogue is saccharine (though I’m grateful they didn’t try to tack on a happy ending). As said above, the storm itself is what makes it worthwhile.
Despite the script’s shortcomings, Clooney is actually pretty good here. There’s a couple of scenes where he seems to play Billy Tyne as a man constantly fighting back tears — but I’m probably reading too much into it. Actually, there’s a bunch of fine actors here, doing what they can with a less than brilliant script, so let no shadow fall on them.
Clichéd and kind of dumb it may be, but also slick and quite watchable. Look past the obvious flaws, and The Perfect Storm is a decent disaster flick.