The Perfect Storm

(Wolfgang Petersen, USA, 2000)


Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, 1981) is a welcome, old-fashioned figure in contemporary cinema.

Single-handedly, he has revived the David Lean tradition of action-adventure epics with a lofty, spiritual tone. At a time when blockbusters have become so predictably formulaic, Petersen's approach offers a special satisfaction.

At the beginning, The Perfect Storm racks up like most Hollywood disaster films. In Gloucester, Massachusetts, Billy (George Clooney) assembles his fishing crew. Each member has his own little story: Bobby (Mark Wahlberg) is itching for one last, big haul before settling down with his partner, Christina (Diane Lane); Murph (John C. Reilly) is still struggling to cope with his split marriage; and Sully (William Fichtner) is the new, curt guy whom nobody likes.

Billy's drama is more interior. To re-establish his lost supremacy as a fishing captain, he takes his boat out on a mission involving far-flung waters and, eventually, a killer storm. When he is not gazing at a photo of his children, Billy only has the feisty Linda (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), on the other end of a radio, in whom to confide.

Contrary to expectations, this is not the kind of film that neatly answers all its characters' prayers or solves their problems. Once the boat comes up against the mighty storm, larger issues of mortality and meaning are at stake. Petersen is unafraid to explore the mythic theme of sacrifice, or suggest that the souls of lovers can be mystically linked across time and space.

The physical and visual aspects of this project – the depiction of the storm, the attention to the labour of boating and fishing, the control of scope and scale – are awesome. Petersen is one of the few filmmakers today who can seamlessly mesh his own style with the extraordinary contributions of large special effects teams. The action is at every moment convincing and involving.

Petersen has a special talent for logistics – conveying economically the details of when, where and how, which so often slow down or derail complex action epics. The Perfect Storm is a triumph of mapping. It boldly cuts between several ships, a rescue mission, television broadcasts and the worried folks back in the port, but never loses or fudges the clarity of its exposition.

Like many a war film, The Perfect Storm (which is based on a true story) must ask us to accept a dramatic situation in which men venture into dangerous terrain, while women at home wait and weep. Fortunately, it has star power to back up this necessary premise. Clooney exhibits the quietly magnetic appeal of a Gary Cooper; the very essence of hardboiled stoicism, he commands the screen.

The entire cast is splendid. Wahlberg improves with every film, and the romantic chemistry between him and Lane is very touching. Reilly, after his films with P. T. Anderson, gives us another of his portraits of implosive, frazzled men with good hearts. Mastrantonio continues the denuding that began in Limbo (1999): deliberately gaunt and de-glamourised, she gallantly faces the vastness of nature and the great imponderables of life.

MORE Petersen: Air Force One, In the Line of Fire

© Adrian Martin June 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search