"The Perfect Storm"

A deluxe crash course in digital production -- and one that helps explain why director Wolfgang Petersen just couldn't grasp the subtlety of Sebastian Junger's book.

By Michael Sragow

Published November 14, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

"The Perfect Storm"
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, Diane Lane, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
Warner Home Video; widescreen (2.35:1)
Extras: Three separate film-length commentaries with Petersen, Sebastian Junger (author of the original book) and visual effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier and visual effects producer Helen Elswit; three background documentaries; a conceptual art gallery, with commentary by Petersen; storyboard gallery

Movie fans who don't follow fantasy films will find this packed-with-features DVD a deluxe crash course in digital production. Of course, devotees of space operas, dinosaur adventures, feature cartoons and comic-book films have known for nearly a decade how crucial digital effects have become to realizing out-of-this-world visions.

But the action scenes in "The Perfect Storm" attempt to be hyperrealistic. And on this DVD, director Wolfgang Petersen and, in a separate commentary track, visual effects supervisor Stefen Fangmeier and visual effects producer Helen Elswit lay out how craftspeople at Industrial Light & Magic conjured up the picture's you-are-there sensations.

To the Gloucester swordfish boat Andrea Gail's fight to the death with violent waves, wind and rain brought on by three converging weather fronts, Fangmeier's ILM team contributed vertiginous shots of storm-tossed waters as well as cyberstuntmen scuttling through air, foam, fog and sea. ILM's wizards of computer-graphic imagery masterfully merged Petersen's views of men against nature -- filmed partly on location in Massachusetts but mostly in a huge tank on the Warner Bros. lot -- with apocalyptic visions they brewed on their desktops. They altered the shading of the sky and erased any frayed edge that cropped up in the imagery, from prop cables and wires to excess tears on a child's face -- all to keep the action seamless. This is the kind of picture that gets much of its power from its opening statement -- "This film is based on a true story" -- and without the crew at ILM, the live-action moviemakers could never have sustained their illusion of naturalism.

Yet when you watch the disc repeatedly to take in its diverse special features, you can't help considering how limiting photo-realism can be as a creative goal, no matter how admirable the craft work. At one point, Fangmeier says that he and his collaborators watched Speilberg's "Jaws" and were surprised at its reckless, logic-defying continuity, in which the weather changed from shot to shot. He surmises that audiences accepted the movie's raggedy level of reality back in 1975 because they weren't as sophisticated about the trompe l'oeil magic of the movies. But I watched "Jaws" again a year ago and was just as swept up in its pulp-comedy version of "Moby Dick" as I was when I saw it opening week at the Hyannis Mall on Cape Cod. "Jaws" has an imaginative zest and audacity that keeps a viewer delightfully off-kilter and (as Pauline Kael suggested) even raises piquant questions about the conventions of macho movie heroism. "The Perfect Storm" is foursquare moviemaking: The only risk it takes is that you'll spot a tear in its literalism.

If you judge it as drama rather than spectacle, "The Perfect Storm" isn't true to life -- it's true to type. I loved the original book precisely because the author, Sebastian Junger, refused to fictionalize the saga of these ill-fated fishermen, even if he could only guess what happened on the last leg of their final journey. On the commentary track, he explains how he practiced "journalism by analogy," using the recollections of seamen who survived similar horrific circumstances to fill the factual gaps in his story. Junger's book is a page-turner in mosaic form, and an inspired director might have made a special movie out of it. (Reading it, I kept thinking of the great Italian filmmaker Francesco Rosi's gripping journalistic puzzle movies, like "The Mattei Affair," or the cartoon segments in Tony Richardson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade," which summed up mini-histories in minutes.)

Sadly, Petersen turns Junger's human chronicle into a compendium of tear-jerking climaxes. On the DVD, Junger keeps testifying to the accuracy of the scripted anecdotes, saying they happened on this trip or other ones. But the incidents lose their emotional authenticity and zing because Petersen strings them together like flowers on a funeral wreath. This director has integrity -- he's more than willing to be downbeat -- but his instincts are terminally vapid. For example, Petersen revels in Junger's assault on cliché in the way the book documents that the best swordfish skipper at the time in the whole Gloucester fleet was a woman (played in the film by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). But Petersen himself gives in to cliché when he stages made-up romantic banter between her and the captain of the Andrea Gail (George Clooney).

Junger's support for the movie is believable; so is Petersen's statement that the film won the respect of the seamen's friends and families. This picture is, above all, a sincere tribute to the life-or-death risks of an unsung group of working men and women. But "The Perfect Storm" winds up an epic piece of glorified banality -- it lacks the aesthetic gumption to match its blood, sweat and tears.

Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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