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The Perfect Storm
Savant Blu-ray Review

The Perfect Storm
2000 / Color / 2.40 widescreen / 130 min. / Street Date July 22, 2008 / 28.99
Starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, Diane Lane, William Fichtner, John Hawkes, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Karen Allen, Cherry Jones, Michael Ironside, Rusty Schwimmer, Janet Wright, Dash Mihok
Cinematography John Seale
Production Design William Sandell
Film Editor Richard Francis-Bruce
Original Music James Horner
Written by Bill Wittliff from the book by Sebastian Junger
Produced by Gail Katz, Wolfgang Petersen, Paula Weinstein
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

2000's The Perfect Storm is a very well made picture that shows us that the fish on our table aren't all caught by factory ships scouring the ocean with nets. The swordfishers of Gloucester lead dangerous lives in rough North Atlantic waters with no assurance of making a good living. Based on Sebastian Junger's intense book, Wolfgang Petersen's film recounts the true story of a massive 1991 storm that caught one fishing boat unawares. The movie doesn't rely on narrative gimmicks or exaggerated heroics. It perhaps suffered at the box office by taking the honest route, and following its story to its logical, downbeat conclusion.


Gloucester "swordboaters" Billy Tyne and Linda Greenlaw (George Clooney & Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) captain fishing rigs owned by Bob Brown (Michael Ironside). As Billy is having a bad run of luck, he quickly gathers a crew and heads back out, intending to score a record haul. Most of the fishermen leave nervous loved ones behind. Dale Murphy (John C. Reilly) has a beloved son but is estranged from his wife, and young Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg) has Christina Cotter (Diane Lane), who desperately wants him to seek less risky employment on shore. Once again Billy's luck is terrible, and he has trouble when Murph and fellow crewmember Sully (William Fichtner) take to fighting. Unwilling to return with an empty hold, Billy decides to go way beyond normal limits to fish off a distant shoal called the Flemish Cap. The gambit works, but their homeward path is blocked by an enormous storm ... actually the confluence of three storms that combine to produce a real catastrophe.

After his near-amazing achievement with Das Boot, nobody will deny that director Wolfgang Petersen knows his way around a sea tale. The Perfect Storm is an engrossing look at modern fishing at the mid-range level, where boat owners rely on hired captains to bring in the big hauls, using crews paid depending on the tonnage they deliver. Like everyone else, the fishermen of Gloucester are in a financial bind, with alimony and mortgages and groceries to buy; young Bobby Shatford earns only a couple of thousand dollars for two or three weeks of treacherous, back-breaking work at sea. The local church walls display the names of local men lost and never recovered, and not a year goes by without a score of fishermen added to the list.

Older stories of this kind tend to exalt the fierce individuality of fishermen as indicative of good Yankee values; more than one 1930s studio film used stories like this to present anti-union themes. The Perfect Storm pushes no particular politics. The fishermen may complain that the boat owner takes half the profit, but he's the one carrying the bulk of the financial risk. Emotions run high when the boys are in danger, yet all involved realize that jeopardy is part of their chosen way of life.

Although the cast does excellent work, the knowledge that the fishermen are running toward disaster mutes the film's overall impact. Billy Tyne pushes the limits of his boat and crew, and we can't blame him for wanting to correct his fisherman's slump. Although nothing becomes mawkish, we can easily tell where the poignant farewells are leading. Christina prepares a new apartment for a man who promises that he's "going out for one last time", a sure sign of trouble. Awkward Bugsy (John Hawkes) gives up trying to score with younger girls and makes friends with a cautious widow with two children. Murphy bonds with his adorable son, a boy who really needs a dad. Billy Tyne flirts with his "competitor" Linda Greenlaw over the possibility of a future relationship. This buildup is both believable and authentic, but it's also more fatalistic than a soldier in a war movie who starts showing pictures of his girlfriend, or talking about buying the farm when he gets back. To its credit The Perfect Storm avoids fake uplift, but cannot escape being a major downer.

The movie has much to teach landlubbers, and surely pointed many viewers back to the source book for more information. A faulty icemaker threatens Tyne's swordfish catch, precipitating the fateful decision to head home through stormy seas. That and a broken radio antenna insure that the luckless Tyne doesn't realize what he's getting into.

Some expository scenes in a TV weatherman's office hype the notion that the "perfect" conditions have arisen for a monster storm, a situation borne out nicely by a subplot involving a sailboat menaced en route to Bermuda. Sailor Melissa Brown (Karen Allen) sends out a mayday signal, which brings out a Coast Guard helicopter to perform what looks like a nearly impossible rescue mission. If the story weren't true, we'd never believe that the large chopper could possibly function in the hurricane-force winds. The sea is so rough, the frogmen that leap from the helicopter could die, just by falling into the 50-foot troughs between the waves below them.

As it works out, the weather is so bad that the chopper can't refuel air-to-air, and must ditch without going to the aid of Tyne's imperiled fishing boat. The brave Coast Guardsmen suffer casualties as well.

We're so accustomed to movies in which heroes sidestep the consequences of their actions that the ending of The Perfect Storm seems a kid of cheat. With no overarching "values" to preach in the face of defeat, modern movies either fudge the facts with convenient miracles or manufacture "meaningful" links between character and fate: the flier crashed to save the lives of others, etc. In the search for feel-good endings, anything goes. Until its conclusion The Abyss (also starring Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) is exemplary Science Fiction, but it drags in Eco-harmony, impossible physics and alien intervention to concoct a stunningly phony uplift -- that's saved only by the actors' sincerity.

Billy Tyne and his crew end up bobbing like corks in their foundering ship, which rolls over completely in its losing battle with monstrous waves. Yes, people at sea have been miraculously delivered from circumstances just as dire, but this time that's not in the cards. When all is said and done The Perfect Storm's vision of the price of plain bad luck must be taken at face value. No poetic words can compensate for the lives lost.

Audiences still capable of finding interest in reality-based action excitement will find plenty of entertainment value in The Perfect Storm.

Warners' Blu-ray of The Perfect Storm may be an improvement on the theatrical experience. Computer graphics programmers solved the problem of generating credible CGI ocean water for this film, but after about forty minutes of towering waves, even these excellent visuals begin to look artificial. The texture of the water actually looks better in Blu-ray than I remember it looking at a tweaked-projection industry screening. The movie overall is quite beautiful both on land and sea, with the Gloucester harbor scenes particularly memorable.

The extras provide a wealth of information for the curious. The effects supervisors get a commentary to themselves, as do the book's author and director Petersen. Composer James Horner is covered in a featurette while the behind-the-scenes issues are taken up by an HBO First Look special. Witnesses to the 1991 storm that provided the basis for the book get their own featurette as well. A photo montage to the song Forever Yours and a trailer round out the extras.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Perfect Storm Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: HBO special, interviews with 1991 storm witnesses, featurette on composer James Horner; commentaries by Wolfgang Petersen, author Sebastian Junger, effects supervisors; song photo montage, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 20, 2008

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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