Elemental smack-down

Blow wind blow, and wash the little sailors away

Jul 5, 2000 at 12:00 am

Wolfgang Petersen’s cinematic re-creation of “the storm of the century” in the North Atlantic may not cause actual seasickness, but there is the distinct feeling of being trapped in the midst of a watery hell.

That no one gives up — from terrified passengers to a cocky Coast Guard rescue squad to the determined but uninformed crew of the Andrea Gail — says much about the human survival instinct, even when faced with extraordinary odds and raging seas.

Sebastian Junger’s nonfiction best-seller, The Perfect Storm (in meteorological terms, a storm that couldn’t be any worse), is a beautifully written reconstruction of a tempest whose devastation shocked even the most jaded seafarers. It’s also an attempt to understand the men who make their living at sea, particularly the six who left Gloucester, Mass., during October 1991 to get one more batch of swordfish before the end of the season.

Director Petersen (Das Boot, Air Force One) opens The Perfect Storm by portraying the working-class milieu of Gloucester fishermen. The high-tech gear and radar can’t mask the fact that this is still dangerous, brutal work done by men, while women wait onshore for them to return from month-long voyages (the swordfish boat captain played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is a rare exception).

After we get brief glimpses of their home life — particularly the frantic passion of Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg) and Chris Cotter (Diane Lane) — the Andrea Gail’s captain, Billy Tyne (George Clooney), apparently trying to outrun an unlucky streak, schedules another trip out.

The crew (terrific character actors John C. Reilly, William Fichtner, John Hawkes and Allen Payne) have caught a boatload of fish and are heading home when they meet the storm, which is marvelously rendered via striking, seamless special effects.

Trouble is, screenwriter Bill Wittliff (Legends of the Fall) has created only sketchy characters, which are then filled out by the strong personalities of the actors. Petersen also relies too heavily on James (Titanic) Horner’s cloying, quasiromantic score to portray heroism in the face of devastation.

Yet, much of the spirit of Junger’s book survives intact, such as the moment when Petersen plunges his camera from an aerial view of Hurricane Grace through the clouds to finally rest on the tumultuous ocean, which can turn in the blink of an eye from a fishing site to a burial ground.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].