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Bob Smithouser

Movie Review

This fine adaptation of Sebastian Junger’s best-selling book spins a harrowing man-against-nature yarn based on actual events. In October 1991, three separate storm fronts converging off the Eastern seaboard created a rare and devastating meteorological phenomenon—a “perfect storm.” The movie focuses primarily on the fate of the Andrea Gail, a commercial swordfishing boat out of Gloucester, Mass., whose six-man crew is desperate for one last score before tying the bow line on a disappointing season. In the role of the vessel’s determined captain, George Clooney is appropriately upstaged by rolling seas and massive crests never before seen on the big screen. But The Perfect Storm isn’t just about one boat trying to ride out a tempest of 50-foot swells and waves ten stories high. The filmmakers keep several lines in the water for optimum dramatic tension. Coast Guard cutters and helicopter parajumpers attempt daring rescues at sea. Some are successful. Others are not. Back on land, loved ones stay glued to TV weather forecasts and wait impatiently for news. It’s a seafaring nail-biter that may go down in history as the Nor’easter that inspired concession stands to start selling Dramamine.

Positive Elements: This is a true story, making its high-risk rescue attempts all the more noble. It’s quite a statement about the value of a single human life when the Coast Guard is willing to put trained professionals and millions of dollars worth of equipment in jeopardy to save a terrified sailor on his way to Bermuda. There’s also a selfless sense of duty conveyed, both in statements by Coast Guard officials and by their actions. Such heroism shows up on a more personal level as well. An exhausted parajumper refuses rescue and jumps back into the churning ocean to retrieve a wounded colleague. When Murph gets gaffed by a fish hook and yanked over the side of the Andrea Gail, two men dive in after him (one is Sully, who had been harboring a bitter grudge against him—a great lesson in forgiveness). Several relationships allude to the pain of divorce. For example, Billy seems to regret that he wasn’t more successful as a husband and father, as evidenced by photos that elicit bittersweet memories. Murph is a loving, tender dad who wishes he could spend more time with his son (in a moment of crisis, personal panic is replaced with thoughts of how his own death might affect the boy). Sully indicates that friendship should be about doing favors for each other. In a warm moment between women, Ethel Shatford expresses confidence in Chris, assuring her that she’ll be a worthy wife for her son. When an old man passes away at sea, Billy and Linda express more concern for the deceased than for the catch (in stark contrast to the reaction by the boat’s owner). The importance of teamwork is a recurring theme.

Spiritual Content: After considerable striving against the elements, Billy suggests that Bobby pray.

Sexual Content: Fishermen pursue casual sex during a brief layover on land. A man and woman neck passionately in public. Alfred earns respect for his smoothness with the ladies (read: promiscuity). Shaking chandeliers above a busy bar suggest wild activity upstairs. It is implied that Bobby (in the midst of a divorce) and his girlfriend Christina sleep together. Bugsy is a romantic bottom-feeder desperate for a one-night stand.

Violent Content: Bobby wakes up with a black eye, though how or why Chris gave it to him is unknown. Murph and Scully scuffle in a bar and on the boat. Murph is pulled over the side in a brutal fishing accident. Men and machines are tossed to and fro in the intensifying storm. A shark is thrust onboard and chomps a crewman’s foot before it takes a shotgun blast to the head.

Crude or Profane Language: About four-dozen profanities include two f-words, a handful of s-words and some crass sexual slang. But it’s the 20 inappropriate uses of God’s name that will really keelhaul Christian viewers.

Drug and Alcohol Content: Haven’t any of these people read the Surgeon General’s warning? Most of the characters are shown smoking cigarettes (Christina alludes to the health risk when, in the midst of lighting up, she tells Bobby, “At least we’ll get cancer together”). Another vice involves sailors drinking to excess at the local watering hole (“Get in there and get drunk”). Indeed, fishermen make good money, have little time in port to enjoy it and live with the knowledge that any trip to sea could be their last, which often breeds a “live-for-the-moment” attitude apparent in this film.

Summary: Because the book had made such a splash, and with the movie looming over the horizon, I decided to read The Perfect Storm during a recent vacation on New England’s rocky shores. With the pounding surf and cry of seagulls as my soundtrack, I ate up page after page about the physics of wave formation, the sounds of a storm (force nine is a scream; force ten is a shriek; force eleven is a moan; force twelve is “a church organ played by a child”) and how it feels for a man to drown. Engaging journalism. Just as Herman Melville often shared more than readers ever hoped to learn about the whaling industry, Junger’s words imparted a deeper appreciation for Gloucester swordfishermen than I ever dreamed possible. He even explained in detail the rigorous training required of rescue personnel. But how would all of this translate to film? Remarkably, the result should satisfy the book’s many fans who have kept it afloat on best-seller lists for over three years.

Despite being a generally faithful adaptation of Junger’s book, The Perfect Storm may seem a bit choppy to uninitiated viewers lacking background on certain imperiled characters. For instance, we learn more about a bitter barfly added for the film than about a real-life, endangered sailor played by Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark). Basic humanity demands that we care about her fate, but she’s one of several personalities sketched too thinly. Of course, people who flock to theaters to see the killer wave depicted on the movie poster will get their money’s worth. To whip up the perfect storm, the effects wizards at Industrial Light & Magic pooled their largest team of technical directors ever committed to a non-science fiction film. It shows. The result is breathtaking as raging seas are both beautiful and terrifying at the same time. This reality-based action film isn’t sugar-coated, feel-good Hollywood fluff built around marketable catch phrases and product tie-ins. In other words, be warned: It’s a summer blockbuster that doesn’t always feel like a summer blockbuster.

In the end, many families may choose to take refuge from The Perfect Storm’s offensive language and checkered morality. It’s a shame, but the presence of those stormy elements detracts from what is otherwise a compelling, pro-life story containing many positive messages.

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Bob Smithouser