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The Perfect Storm

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen

The press kit for The Perfect Storm contains the damnedest thing I've ever read. Right at the top, there is a "special request to the press" that reads, in full: "Warner Bros. Pictures would appreciate the press' cooperation in not revealing the ending of this film to their readers, viewers or listeners." All due apologies, but that seems highly implausible, because The Perfect Storm's plot boils down to a single sentence: In late October 1991, six swordfishermen from Gloucester, Mass., aboard a ship named the Andrea Gail, collide with three converging storms and die.

This should come as no grand revelation, because Wolfgang Petersen's film is based on Sebastian Junger's 1997 bestseller of the same name, which itself told "a true story of men against the sea," as the cover heralded. Junger even authored a story for the New York Times in April in which he expressed his relief that Petersen did not give the movie a happy Hollywood ending. "I was worried that not wanting to kill off a big-name actor, they would have some of the Andrea Gail crew survive," Junger wrote, recounting his initial conversation with the director. "He had no intention of departing from the book, he told me."

So now you know: George Clooney dies at the end of The Perfect Storm. It would insult your intelligence, and cheapen the memory of six dead men, to pretend otherwise. The ending is no secret, and to offer false hope smacks of cynicism -- as though Warners is offering this up as Twister or Wild Wild West, another bland action film sailing into summer's multiplexes. It's a sign Warners is afraid people won't see a downer film in the summer, no matter how intense its action. The studio had guts to stick to the story; too bad it now wants to pretend it didn't.

What's astonishing is how faithless the movie is to Junger's book; no doubt fans of the book will leave the film awed by its computer-generated waves and animatronic fish but also dumfounded by how unessential the six dead men are to the story's telling. Captain Billy Tyne (Clooney), Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg), Dale "Murph" Murphy (John C. Reilly), David "Sully" Sullivan William Fichtner), Mike "Bugsy" Moran (John Hawkes) and Alfred Pierre (Allen Payne) are barely characters at all. Screenwriter Bill Wittliff (The Black Stallion, Lonesome Dove and a handful of Willie Nelson films) has turned them into stick figures who utter banal clichés ("Here's where we separate the men from the boys"; "We're starting to get an unlucky feeling out here") 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 white-capped 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 in 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 Hollywood near-ending. The crew of the Andrea Gail may disappear beneath the "sea of glass mingled with fire" (a quote from Revelation, which Junger uses atop one of his chapters), but 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 Shatford, the book's ostensible protagonist) or 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. They're but fodder for special effects, corpses to be disposed of when the film has ended. Clooney never becomes Billy Tyne -- a counselor of drug-addicted teens who became a fisherman at his wife's insistence, only to lose her when he became addicted to the water -- because there is no character to become. He tells us who he is ("When you're a goddamned swordboat captain, is there anything better in the world?") because he has nothing to show us beneath the scraggly beard and John Deere cap. All we know of him is that he's a fisherman on a losing streak; he is about to become even unluckier.

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