The Perfect Storm - rated SIMMERING

Ride ride ride the wild surf

If you're after a great "Friday Night Movie," this is it. Just sit back, turn off your critical faculties and enjoy the ride.

The bestselling book on which the film is based was anything but a traditional-format novel. If fact, it was more a non-fiction treatise on the nature of weather. But the writer (William D Wittliff, who wrote both the dreadful Legends of the Fall (1984) and the wonderful TV series Lonesome Dove (1989)) and director (Wolfgang Petersen) have managed to turn an unusual novel into a fairly standard-form film (with one critical difference). But have you ever noticed how easy it is to enjoy a standard-form film? That's why the form became standard - it works.

And so we have the first half of the movie setting up the characters with families, lovers, problems, weaknesses etc. All efficiently done, if a little clichéd. It did strike me as odd that the only thing we know about the single black character in the film (Allen Payne, as Alfred Pierre) is that he is randy. And the virulent argument that brews between the characters of Sully (William Fichter) and Murph (John C Reilly) isn't set up too well, so it doesn't ring true.

One thing I liked about these initial scenes though, was the sense of place Petersen manages to establish very quickly around the little town in general, and the bar in particular. He uses the central bar as a pivot-point, and thus generates a sense of intimacy very quickly. This technique reminded me very much of the sense of claustrophobia Petersen established in his most famous film, Das Boot (1981).

Then we have the scenes devoted to the Perfect Storm. These are absolutely stunning! I read a little about the study of fluid dynamics and atmospherics that went into the film: the producers hired one of the leading American experts to help them make the storm look real - and it does. Apparently the clouds, wind and fog were the hardest to do, but even they look pretty real. The whole effect is absolutely terrifying. And if you've ever been in a boat that had to execute a 180º turn in very high seas (as I have) you will be literally screaming (as I was).

Some of the dialogue is terse, to the point of being trite: Captain Billy Tyne (George Clooney) says: "I fish. It's what I do". There's lots of that kind of thing. But maybe all fisherfolk speak like that in the New England area. I wouldn't be surprised. And there does seem to be a problem with the editing - the cross-cutting between scenes of the fishing boat Andrea Gail, the sailing ship with the upper-class twits on it, and the weather bureau was strangely inept. It did not seem to match the flow of the tension well enough at times.

But these are quibbles - I do recommend you turn off your critical antennae, and just let the film flow over you. Plus, there are a couple of wonderful scenes, even outside the action scenes. For example, there's a scene where Diane Lane, playing the worried girlfriend of one of the fishermen confronts the boat-owner about having sent off her man to almost certain death.
"What do you want?" she asks him "credit for having the goddam guts to walk in here?"
"Yeah" says the owner.
"Give it to him" says Quentin, an old fisherman at the bar.

There's also a very touching scene when a female fishing boat captain is forced to call in a Mayday for her fellow Captain. The excellent Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio conveys her anguish as she has to admit defeat on his behalf. It is all the more bitter for her being a woman.

One other aspect of the film I liked was the way that Petersen and Wittliff don't shy away from the fact that this is all about a commercial enterprise. No one us forcing these men to take such risks: they're doing it for the money. Pride comes into it, for sure, and bravery, but the prime motivation for risk-taking is money. That's commendable honesty.