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Storm Warning

Disaster film sinks under its own melodramatic weight

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." All due apologies, but that seems highly implausible, as 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. Junger even authored a story for The New York Times in April in which he expressed his relief that Petersen had not given 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.

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 account; no doubt fans of the book will leave the film awed by its computer-generated waves and animatronic fish but, also, dumbfounded by how unessential the six dead men are to the story. 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) has turned them into stick figures who utter banal clichés 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 -- 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. By the time the Coast Guard helicopter's crew fails a protracted refueling effort and is forced to ditch at sea -- it has run out of gas en route to rescuing the Andrea Gail, which never happened -- we're more concerned with their fate than that of the six fishermen. Junger is wrong, in that respect: Petersen and Wittliff have given a downer tale a happy Hollywood near-ending. The crew of the Andrea Gail may disappear beneath the "sea of glass mingled with fire" (a quote from Revelations, which Junger uses atop one of his chapters), but all is not lost to the graveyard. We can leave the theater satisfied that at least some have survived.

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. 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, whether to pay off ex-wives (as was the case with Shatford, the book's ostensible protagonist) or buy enough booze to keep them numb until the next trip out to sea. At its best, the book reads like a protracted eulogy.

Petersen and Wittliff, in contrast, have turned The Perfect Storm into a rollicking adventure yarn, 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. He tells us who he is because he has nothing to show us beneath the scraggly beard and John Deere cap. All we know of him is that he's a fisherman on a losing streak.

What's more galling, Wittliff adds in a romance for Tyne that the book never even hinted at: Tyne flirts with Linda Greenlaw (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), real-life captain of the Andrea Gail's sister ship. The two were indeed friends who shared risk and reward, but this bubbling-beneath-the-surface love affair exists now to give Tyne's death resonance. It's as though the filmmakers had little faith in our ability to care about Tyne, so they added a woman who frets over him and, finally, mourns him. She cries so we don't have to.

Like Junger, the filmmakers try to keep Shatford in the center of the storm: He's 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. We care so little for them, we're not even bothered by the fact that we don't see them die. They simply disappear. One minute they're up to their necks in water; the next, we're at the memorial service, bidding farewell to complete strangers. Were Petersen less concerned with his effects and with teasing us with half-assed heroics and more interested in his characters, perhaps their deaths would have had meaning. Instead, they're just fishermen lost at sea; their deaths amount to nothing more than shrugs -- save for that of Bobby, who survives long enough to deliver an internal monologue that disproves the notion that shit floats.

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 theories and conjecture, so Wittliff has gone through Junger's book and plundered from its fact-checked pages in order to bend and break the truth.

No longer are shark attacks (which happened to Murphy, on another boat) and tales of men dragged through the sea with hooks caught in their hands just historical anecdotes, tough-guy stories meant to illustrate how dangerous life at sea can be for these fishermen. Now, they happen to the crew of the Andrea Gail. It's as though their real-life tale weren't dramatic enough, so Wittliff gave it more weight -- enough to drag it to the bottom of the ocean.

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