By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Heather Baysa
By Calum Marsh
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Simon Abrams
By Alan Scherstuhl
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 text; 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's telling. Screenwriter Bill Wittliff (The Black Stallion, Lonesome Dove, and a handful of Willie Nelson films) has turned Capt. 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) into stick figures who utter banal clichés ("Here's where we separate the men from the boys") 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 in which deep-green waves resemble whitecapped mountains -- 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 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), 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, instead of allowing the film to take us someplace never before seen or felt. 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 Bobby Shatford, the book's ostensible protagonist) or to buy enough booze to keep them numb until the next trip out to sea. At its best the book reads like a protracted eulogy, a hopeless journey with an inevitably sad ending.
Petersen and Wittliff, in contrast, have turned The Perfect Storm into a rollicking adventure yarn (Clooney, in scenes, is Batman and Superman), and in doing so, they've all but abolished any reason for us to care for these men. Clooney never becomes Billy Tyne -- a counselor of drug-addicted teens who takes up fishing at his wife's insistence, only to lose her when he grows addicted to the water -- because there is no character to become. All we know of him is that he's a fisherman on a losing streak, about to become even unluckier. More gallingly Wittliff adds a romance for Tyne at which the book never even hinted: Tyne flirts with Linda Greenlaw (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), real-life captain of the Andrea Gail's sister ship. The two were indeed friends, colleagues who shared risk and reward, but this bubbling-beneath-the-surface love affair exists now to give Tyne's death resonance: She mourns him, so we don't have to.
Like Junger the filmmakers try to keep Bobby 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 premonition he and Christina share) that if he steps foot aboard the Andrea Gail one more time, he will have no life at all. (Junger, like Wittliff, did amp up the melodrama; that's one thing book and film share.) The rest of the crew disappears behind the raindrops and surging seas.
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