The Perfect Storm
review by
KJ Doughton, 7 July 2000

A lot of water gets tossed about in The Perfect Storm. Using the new millenium’s finest special effects arsenal – plus a few million gallons of H20 – this movie takes viewers on a vicarious tour of The Atlantic. The highlights include wind-whipped drizzle, menacing whitecaps, jet-black skies spitting forth lightning, and hundred-foot swells. Based on Sebastian Unger’s 1998 book chronicling an ill-fated journey into churning seas by a Gloucester sword fishing boat, The Perfect Storm is director Wolfgang Petersen’s latest in a series of larger-than-life actioners that includes Das Boot, In the Line of Fire, and Air Force One. Despite the macho presence of George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg as deep-sea angling partners aboard the Andrea Gail, the film’s true star is its storm; a triple-shot of hurricanes colliding head-on.  As this monster typhoon lays waste to watercraft with the ease of a garbage disposal chugging down yesterday’s leftovers, the effect is convincing, and will pass the scrutiny of anyone who’s ever blown chunks over the side of a salmon charter boat out on choppy waters.  There’s no feeling quite as helpless.

Why is it, then, that one walks out of The Perfect Storm with a feeling as empty as the ice chest of a skunked skipper?  Unlike a summer box-office competitor like The Patriot, which covers a broad canvas of characters, plotting, and geography, this film’s story is confined to a much more personal story.  But it’s handled in the manner of a big, loud, effects-driven blockbuster.  That’s the mistake.  Instead of teaching viewers enough about its characters to make them forget about the digital effects and action, the script is so generic that you’re almost salivating to see the Andrea Gail’s crewmembers nailed by the rotten weather. You feel like a geeky peeper watching Freddy Krueger gutting teenagers, anxious for the rush of action, but ashamed that you’re getting entertainment value out of watching others suffer.

The Perfect Storm’s obvious spiritual predecessor, Titanic, didn’t forget to invest some time in its central romance before the final, tragic scenes played out.  Watching Jack and Rose dance a forbidden jig with the downstairs “steerage” was a story in itself: the sinking ship was a dramatic bonus.  It says something that a movie as massive as James Cameron’s Best Picture recipient boasted a more intimate love story than The Perfect Storm, which reaches for an epic feel when it should be embracing its smaller-scale Gloucester group with more detail and less bang for the buck.

The Perfect Storm’s various human flotsam and jetsam are introduced at the Crow’s Nest, a lively dockside watering hole that packs ‘em in like crowded sardines.  Among the barstool regulars are Billy Tyne (George Clooney, sporting an unshaven, Don Johnson look), a down-on-his-luck skipper whose paychecks and catches are both getting smaller, and Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg), an upstart seaman who spends most of his on-shore time groping girlfriend Christine Cotter (Diane Lane).  Swigging booze a few tables down are Murph (John C. Reilly), a human teddy bear to his admiring, towhead son, and Bugsy (John Hawkes), a lonely runt who makes it to first base with the Bette Midler-esque Irene (Rusty Schwimmer).  Rounding out this cluster of human driftwood is Linda Greenlaw (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), another skipper who flirts with Billy but maintains a tough exterior. Meanwhile, Alfred Pierre (Allen Payne) is a Jamaican who’s so busy bedding the local women that he apparently doesn’t have time to mumble more than a few words during the film’s 129 minute running time.

The Perfect Storm’s first few scenes do a fairly good job of establishing Gloucester’s hard-living, economically tight subculture of ocean-reliant, blue-collar toughs. Most of the main characters are recently divorced, juggling the messy aftermath of child custody, alimony payments, and unreliable incomes. When fishermen wait in line for paychecks, there’s a convincing tension generated as boat crews with poor catch quotas are reprimanded with lower earnings. After this early scene, the short-of-cash Tyne alerts his men that he’s planning on taking an extra trip out to sea, and they follow him in search of a catch that will “set the market” and promise them all weightier reimbursement.  Shatford, Murph, Bugsy, and Pierre round out his crew, along with a scrappy hothead tagalong named Scully (William Fichtner). 

Once at sea aboard the Andrea Gail, the men crank up some ZZ Top, submerge the baitlines, and wait for some action.  There’s an inexplicable rivalry between Murph and Scully, who throw punches and hurl insults to and fro.  Later, when Murph’s hand is impaled by a baithook and he’s yanked overboard by a taut line, it’s Scully who comes to his rescue.  Much male bonding and reconciliation follows.  Later, when the men huddle inside the boat and grumble about their crummy, miniscule catch, Tyne rouses them into action like a sea-bound Bobby Knight.  “This is where the men are separated from the boys,” he proclaims, wrapping up a stale pep speech.  More bonding, more reconciliation. We’ve seen it before.

All of these introductions and “characterizations” hardly matter when the three storm fronts start weaving their black magic spell.  The Perfect Storm attempts to beef up this impressive attack by Mother Nature, which is followed by a weatherman in a Massachusetts newsroom, with a subplot involving the rescue of a yacht via Coast Guard ships and Air Force helicopters.  Under black skies and seemingly impenetrable sheets of rain, there’s a spectacular mid-air attempt to refuel a helicopter that brings to mind a similar set piece from Air Force One. It’s obvious that Petersen feels completely at home combining high-tech gadgetry with kinetic, nail-biting rescue scenarios: he’d be a good candidate for the next Tom Clancy adaptation.  Meanwhile, the Andrea Gail is tossed and turned, with similar set pieces popping up.  When an anchor sways loose on a chain, careening through windows and whipping about like a lethal mace, Tyne is left to climb the Andrea Gail’s exterior and dismantle it with a blowtorch.  It’s a harrowing scene.

There’s no denying that The Perfect Storm is exciting: if you’re out for two hours of escapism, it delivers.  However, there’s a formulaic feel to the pacing and plotting, reminding one that this is only a movie.  You’ll gawk at the forbidding maelstrom of black water and crushing waves, but never forget that you’re viewing this spectacle from the safe, snug confines of a local multiplex.  This might be the result of limited emotional involvement with the Andrea Gail’s doomed crew.  Unlike Jaws, which threw together an angry old salt, a jittery cop, and a rich-boy fish expert for a deep-sea shark-hunting expedition and evolved from the personalities of its trio, The Perfect Storm really doesn’t invest a minute’s time in building up its cast.  Does Bugsy’s lack of self-esteem fit into any of the onboard scenarios?  Does the studly Pierre offer any groundbreaking revelations about his Casanova-style dating techniques?  Do we really get a sense of what drives the courageous Tyne? Negative.

Ultimately, The Perfect Storm is much like marveling at the great technique of a fisherman casting into a bathtub.  He might be good at what he does, but what’s the purpose?  Likewise, Petersen’s hellraising tides are a lot of fun to look at, but his shallow characters are beached on dry land before these oceanic fireworks even start.  

Directed by:
Wolfgang Petersen

George Clooney
Mark Wahlberg
John C. Reilly
Diane Lane
William Fichtner
John Hawkes
Allen Payne
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio

Written by:
Bill Wittliff

Based on the 
Book by:

Sebastian Unger




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