It’s very hard to make a good book into a good movie, even a good book that seems inherently cinematic, as this one does, with all its swirling winds and crashing waves. But in adapting this book, the screenwriter made a number of choices that make the main character’s decision to ride into the storm seem prudent by comparison, and the movie starts to sink long before the boat does.
The first challenge was finding a substitute for one of the book’s great strengths, its narrative voice. The first mistake was substituting dialogue that was corny back in 1940’s movies about fighter squadrons. At least then it seemed like an understandable response to being in battle. But to have your main character say things like, “So this is the moment of truth. This is where they separate the men from the boys,” with a straight face is to jar us out of any identification with the characters.
The second challenge was to give us a movie called “The Perfect Storm,” based on a book called “The Perfect Storm,” based on an actual perfect storm, and then keep our attention for an hour and a half before we actually get to see the storm. The second mistake was in wasting this chance to make us care about the characters. Instead, each member of the crew of the Andrea Gail is trotted onstage Smurf-style, with one identifying characteristic for us to grab onto. Captain Billy Tyne (George Clooney) has to prove to himself and to the owner of the boat that he can bring in a good load of fish. Bobby (Mark Wahlberg) has to choose between his love for the sea and his girlfriend Christina (Diane Lane). Bugsy (John Hawkes) has the prospect of a new love to come home to. Scully (William Fichtner) and Murph (John C. Reilly) don’t get along with each other. It would have made more sense to let us know something more about the characters who pop up later on, the Coast Guard rescue team and the three people they save from the sailboat. Furthermore, in a movie like this, positively the last thing in the world anyone needs is foreshadowing, and yet before the storm comes, we keep being hit over the head with foreboding, with comments like, “I have a bad feeling about this,” and “this is the last time, I promise.” Believe me, “this is the last time, I promise,” is a more certain indicator of disaster than a slasher movie’s “I’ll be right back!”
The third challenge was making use of the kind of all-star cast that this kind of a highly visible and well-financed project can draw. The third mistake was a criminal waste of the talents of people like Cherry Jones and Karen Allen, whose roles primarily consist of yelling “Mayday” and bobbing in the water, and Christopher McDonald, whose role primarily consists of staring meaningfully at a computer monitor. Wahlberg, Fichtner, Lane, and Reilly, four fine actors, are left more adrift by the script than their characters are by the storm.
The fourth challenge was making it all make sense. Someone once said that the difference between real life and movies is that movies have to make sense and real life doesn’t. What that means is that movies, like any other kind of story, have an internal logic that people understand instinctively. Part of that logic governs who in a movie can die without leaving an audience feeling cheated. There was a way to make the logic of the movie fit the facts of what happened, and the fourth failure was missing it.
The fifth challenge was taking a sad story and making it feel sad, not maudlin. The fifth mistake was failing on this one, too. The scenes on land following the storm go on too long. This is where we really need some insight and some good dialogue, and we just don’t get it. And there is one scene, just before one character dies, where he speaks to a loved one and sees her in an apparition that even the producers of “Message in a Bottle” would have been embarrassed to try.
The sixth challenge is the one most people care most about, and that is the special effects on the storm and the filming of the action scenes as people fight to stay alive. That one is met in full, and for that alone the movie gets three stars.
Parents should know that the movie has some strong sailor language and some sexual references that can get crude. Characters drink and smoke a great deal. For most parents, the primary concern will be the scariness and sadness of the movie. It is very intense and many characters are killed. Parents should be willing to give kids deniability (“I really want to see it but my parents won’t let me!”) if they sense that the kids do not want to go.
Families who see this movie should talk about the way the characters evaluate their options and deal with the consequences of their decisions. After the first rescue, the Coast Guard is told that their superiors cannot order them to go to the second, because it is too hazardous. What went into their decision about how to respond? Captain Tyne had to decide whether to try to get home through the storm in time to save their catch or protect his men’s lives while losing all their money. How did he decide?
Families who enjoy this movie might like to see another movie about a Massachusetts captain taking on the sea, “Moby Dick,” with Patrick Stewart as Captain Ahab.