I wouldn't mind knowing what the guys down at the Crow's Nest are saying about The Perfect Storm, Wolfgang Petersen's movie version of Sebastian Junger's book about a fishing boat that was lost at sea during the "Halloween Gale" of 1991. Junger paints a vivid portrait of the Gloucestermen who park their hopes and dreams on the Crow's Nest bar stools between month-long forays to the North Atlantic--salty crackers who, despite the modern-day conveniences of commercial fishing, are a link to America's seafaring past, from Columbus to Melville and beyond. Taking his cues from Moby-Dick, Junger intersperses his text with little lectures on sword-fishing, weather systems, navigation techniques, wave mechanics and--the book's spookiest chapter--drowning. And, as in Moby-Dick That, finally, is what Junger's book is about: appreciating the plight of not just the Andrea Gail's crew but of all the men and women who, over the years, have thrown themselves in the path of Mother Nature so that the rest of us might order the swordfish with leek-and-tomato compote at our local seafood restaurants. Junger lets us know that 10,000 Gloucestermen have been swallowed by the sea since 1650 (200 a year during the industry's heyday), but he doesn't hype the statistic, just reports it. The whole book is like that, understated in a way that would have appealed to that old man of the sea, Ernest Hemingway. The tone is so perfect--factual, with a tinge of emotion--that it drapes a shroud of solemnity over everything. Rhetorically speaking, Melville rode the waves of Captain Ahab's storm-tossed temperament, drenching himself in Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, the King James Bible. Junger stands on shore, safe and dry, and tells us what he sees. If only Petersen had held on to that sense of restraint. The movie version, which stars George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and Diane Lane, is like some water park from hell--two-plus hours of weather porn. Junger was impressed by "the perfect storm" as well; he took his title from it, after all. But he didn't allow himself to be swept away by its utter ferocity. Petersen, who did such a good job of battening down the hatches in Das Boot, seemed like an ideal choice to steer this project home. Sadly, he has been swept away by the storm's ferocity. About the best you can say for The Perfect Storm is that, for at least an hour, it places us on board a small fishing vessel amid one of the most monstrous meteorological events ever recorded. What happens when a nor'easter out of Canada merges with a hurricane traveling up the Atlantic seaboard and yet a third storm? Before this, only the crew of the Andrea Gail knew for sure. Now, through the wonders of CGI (and a state-of-the-art wind machine), we all know. What we don't know is what happened to the Andrea Gail. No Mayday message was sent, and no log was recovered. Junger handled this not-knowing beautifully in his book, compounding the horror by methodically working his way through the various possible scenarios. For the movie, Petersen and scriptwriter Bill Wittliff have had to pick one, of course, but that's the least way in which they've cut into the book's mythic resonance. They've also added a scene out of Jaws and a man-overboard scene--attempts to please the summer-movie crowd. And, without Junger's light touch, they've managed to heroicize a group of men who would probably cringe if they saw how they've been portrayed. Clooney, who looks weirdly clean-cut for a guy sporting several days' growth of beard, is given a ridiculous how-I-love-the-sea speech to deliver, and the script has some real clunky lines, as when, early on, the girlfriend of a crew member says, "I gotta bad feeling, Bobby." I believe they call that foreshadowing. Wahlberg, who grew up 40 miles from Gloucester, has the walk and talk of a guy who's handled his share of fish guts. And Lane, as the girl with the bad feeling, shows bits and pieces of the longing that made her so effective in A Walk on the Moon. All the actors do their best to capture that elusive prey: working-class Joes. But the movie, applying disaster-film esthetics, doesn't give anybody any time to develop a character--a pity, because a hell of a story could have been carved out of the situation your average Gloucester fisherman finds him or herself in these days, lured farther and farther out to sea by the promise of a fat paycheck. It's not that The Perfect Storm fails to mention any of this; on the contrary, it dutifully covers everything. But the story is at once over- and underdramatized, perhaps because the filmmakers felt they had bigger fish to fry. Building a storm with gale-force winds and 100-foot waves can demand a lot of a director's time. Story? End of story.
"I want to make people sick," Petersen supposedly said over and over during the filming--not exactly a lofty artistic goal, but one that's consistent with the movie's blockbuster aspirations. And I have to admit that, on some not-all-that-crude level, the movie succeeds, filling us with a sense of nature's awesome power. (Petersen used the same f/x team that created the tornadoes in Twister.) It's pure spectacle, and this may be enough to carry most people through the thing; it carried me. But it could have been so much more. It could have filled up our hearts as well as our lungs. I remember reading once that Melville, when he was starting to work on Moby-Dick, wrote to a friend that it was hard to get poetry out of blubber. For Moby-Dick's whale, substitute The Perfect Storm's waves, which are capable of destroying anything foolish enough to stand in their way. Alas, it's hard to get poetry out of mere water; what you tend to get instead is a crash course in fluid dynamics.
By the way, I saw The Perfect Storm on Point Cinema's new UltraScreen, which is 75 feet wide and 32 feet high. And though I'm quite capable of blowing a whole bunch of smoke up your ass about peripheral vision and immersion in the image, I'd simply like to repeat what the guy sitting behind me said: "That sucker sure is big."