The Perfect Storm (2000)

D: Wolfgang Petersen
S: George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg

Sweat-inducing maritime drama based on the true story of six New England fishermen lost in 1991 when an unprecedented concatenation of weather systems resulted in what meteorologists dubbed 'the perfect storm'. For the six men caught in its fury, it proved a fatal, and no doubt terrifying, experience. For movie audiences, in the hands of director Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, Air Force One), it is an almost unbearably intense evocation of the primal power of the sea and the foolhardiness of the human spirit.

Based on the 'non-fiction' book by Sebastian Junger, the film is nonetheless far from a documentary. This is not Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran or Herbert Ponting's Ninety Degrees South, though the film shares some of their concerns. It explores the relationship between man and the sea, the symbiotic and often combative link between land-based mammals and the ocean which inspires both our love and fear. It is also a tale of human hardship and tragedy, an epic of endurance and struggle with a chastening end. But Hollywood films demand a greater level of emotional affect, and thus the screenplay by Bill Wittliff is eager to establish a strong human context for the action. Early scenes on land introduce the blue-collar characters and their environment in generally realistic terms, though through a romantic filter which facilitates the dramatic narrative. The scenes at sea add layers of interpersonal conflict and characterisation which must inevitably be guesswork and extrapolation, and though these do not intrude to too great an extent, they detract from the documentary interpretation. Wittliff and Petersen are also careful to ensure that the feelings of the real-life families are not hurt by the portrayal of their lost loved ones, and the film attempts to find ways to ennoble its protagonists and match them to the 'larger-than-life' adventure story despite inevitable nagging doubts about the fishermen's motives. The combination of tribute and speculation doesn't lend itself to absolute fidelity to reality, but the film remains generally more authentic as a representation of human tragedy than James Cameron's Titanic.

It is not as a dramatic 'text' or a thematic study that this film really hits home though. Since his arrival in Hollywood, Wolfgang Petersen has consistently proved to be a superb director of action films (In the Line of Fire, Outbreak), and The Perfect Storm is ultimately best appreciated as one of the most engrossing portrayals of physical action in recent memory, comparable with The 13th Warrior as a triumph of viscerality over narrative. Despite consisting mostly of computer-enhanced and studio-shot storm sequences (with some location work shot in Gloucester and even partly in a real hurricane), the film fills the field of vision with all manner of human, mechanical, and maritime action which makes you literally feel part of the on-screen world. In many ways the film rekindles the feelings you have not had since childhood when, not quite able to separate the real from the represented, one could be completely carried away by the alternate world presented on the movie screen. During The Perfect Storm, you find yourself holding your breath in terror and anticipation. You feel waves of panic and relief in conjunction with those experienced by the characters. You really think you're there. It is not coldly and distantly spectacular in the manner of so many sci-fi and action films of the late twentieth century. It is immersive. Its visual intensity is overwhelming. The audience finds itself surrounded by angry seas, stormy skies, and the water-whipped, haggard faces of the top-name cast, our ears assaulted by howling winds, screaming metal, and the sound of waves and sea-spray tearing into the Andrea Gail. Petersen piles on the pressure all the way, and we don't even have the catharsis of knowing that everything will work out in the end.

This kind of gut-wrenching verisimilitude can only be the result of consummate artifice. Petersen and cinematographer John Seale (best known for lush photography in the likes of The English Patient and The Talented Mr. Ripley) have combined the natural and synthetic elements at their disposal (including extensive, enormously impressive ILM CGI effects) to produce a physically consistent world which becomes more nightmarish by degrees almost without our noticing the steps. The cast, including headliners George Clooney (The Peacemaker, Batman and Robin) and Mark Wahlberg (Boogie Nights, Three Kings), but also supporting players John C. Reilly (The Thin Red Line, Never Been Kissed), William Fichtner (Contact, Go), Allen Payne and John Hawkes do a good job of playing down their characters in the early stages, and do a great job of dealing with the hardships of physical acting later on. A variety of well known supporting players including Michael Ironside, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Diane Lane, Bob Gunton, and Karen Allen also largely downplay their characters, and the cast is filled out by a convincing gallery of well-cast less familiar faces including, notably, Rusty Schwimmer and Janet Wright. The overall feeling of low-key authenticity is only disrupted by James Horner's unsuitable score, which tends to make these early moments feel more sentimental than they should be.

The film on the whole is not as consistently realistic and hard hitting as Das Boot, but this is the closest Petersen has come to the tone and texture of his breakthrough masterpiece. The Perfect Storm is a distinctly different and much more extravagant accomplishment, but it demonstrates a mastery of technique which keeps him in the front rank of contemporary Hollywood directors. Its deficiencies on the level of character and sentiment are understandable in context, but despite the honest attempt to pay homage to men at sea and these men in particular, there is a feeling that the land-based drama is the weakest link in the chain. Despite the restraint, the dramatic sub-plots are not far from genre clichés, though the inclusion of action sub-plots involving another vessel in distress and a daring rescue attempt proves effective. Again, based partly on a true story, we have to allow for certain respectful exaggeration, but in the face of one of the most awe-inspiring depictions of the elemental power of nature since the classic biblical epics, scenes of domestic disharmony and tentative, understated romance have little chance of standing out in the memory.

The Perfect Storm is very impressive. It is a physical film in every sense, and viewers will find it an exhilarating and often frightening trip which will not be forgotten easily. As summer movies go, this is a cut above the norm, though in many ways it is still very much a spectacular blockbuster in the tradition of action/adventure and disaster films with which audiences will be well familiar. Highly recommended.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.

Note: The Region 2 DVD comes reasonably well stocked with extra features, including trailers and documentaries. Alas, only a home cinema set up will really do justice to this film, as stripped of its visual and aural power by scale, there's only the admittedly less powerful story elements to hold onto.