The Perfect Storm is one of those "ripped from the headlines" quasi-disaster flicks that simultaneously attempts to iconize a particular segment of the working stiff public (in this case Gloucester fishermen) while providing a special effects laden trip into the belly of the hurricane beast. If it comes up a bit short in the former enterprise, it more than succeeds in the latter, providing one of the most rip-roaring storm sequences ever caught on film, one that is immeasurably augmented in this new Blu-Ray edition's True HD 5.1 sound mix, one of the most immersive (literally--you'll feel like you're underwater at times) in recent memory.
Sebastian Junger, author of the book on which this fact-culled film was based, worked in Gloucester himself and was there in 1991 when "the storm of the century" hit. As he describes in his excellent commentary track, he had been working on a book about dangerous jobs, and was planning on devoting one chapter to the fishermen of Gloucester, with an emphasis on the Andrea Gail, which was lost at sea during this incredible convergence of "weather events." The more he looked into the story, and the better he got to know some of the relatives and friends of the men lost in the tragedy, the more he realized that the story deserved a book of its own. The rest, as they say, is history.
The film follows the travails of Captain Billy Tyne (George Clooney), a shark boat skipper caught in a bad slump who makes a fateful decision to return to sea, despite weather issues, in order to prove he's still got the goods, fish-catching wise. Along for the ride are his working class crew made up of some great character bits by such notables as Mark Wahlberg (surprisingly effective), the great John C. Reilly, and William Fichtner. The crew ventures further east than they really should, managing to overcome several omens of bad luck (a shark brought aboard by mistake which bites one of the crew, a rogue wave which almost washes several men overboard, and a near drowning of one crewman) to bring in a record catch when their onboard ice machine gives up the ghost. In order to save their catch, they decide to hightail it back to Gloucester despite the looming weather systems which will be, to state it mildly, a challenge to overcome. That's really the gist of the film in a nutshell, though there are a number of subplots, including a friendly rivalry cum romance between Tyne and an attractive female skipper (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), the trials of three people in a sailboat (including the wonderful Karen Allen) caught in the storm, and the real heroics of the Coast Guard crew sent to rescue everyone.
While the film, at least in its depiction of the storm elements, in inescapably visceral and at times overwhelming, it never quite achieves its main aim of lionizing the fishermen. In fact in an early scene, when the Andrea Gail's crew walks in tandem down the dock toward the boat to James Horner's elegiac music, it seems like a fishy version of The Right Stuff, and is almost laughable. When the true heroes of the piece finally show up (the Coast Guard), the entire focus shifts and the crew of the Andrea Gail seem foolhardy at best, downright stupid at worst, and that fractious perspective persists for the rest of the film, depriving it of some the emotional heft it strives so incessantly to attain. The bulk of the emotional pull is placed on the actually quite able shoulders of Wahlberg and his girlfriend (Diane Lane), who are able to wring three hankies worth of tragedy out of about a half hankies' worth of actually scripted material.
If the film suffers in the plot department (and also to a certain extent from Clooney who just is too suave to effectively portray a blue-collar working stiff), it is a roller coaster ride par excellence in the actual film technique department. Director Wolfgang Petersen mounts an impressive production with seamless integration of CGI (state of the art in its day, and still looking pretty impressive eight years on). The half hour or so storm sequence which is the climax of the film is a stunning recreation of what it must be like to be on open seas in the midst of furious wind and waves and will leave most viewers breathless and dripping adrenaline. Horner's gorgeous anthemic score is also one of his best, solidly in the Copland and Bernstein Americana idiom (though Broadway fans may notice an odd similarity of Horner's main theme to the opening triadic phrase of "It's Gonna Be Another Hot Day" from the musical 110 in the Shade). The sound design is certainly one of the finest in the past quarter century or so, with simply unmatched water effects that will have you checking regularly to make sure you're not getting wet.