In one of the many tersely haunting passages of his sea-disaster chronicle The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger describes the ominous siren song made by the wind during an apocalyptic ocean deluge: ”Force 10 is a shriek. Force 11 is a moan. Over Force 11 is something fishermen don’t want to hear… a deep tonal vibration like a church organ.” I wouldn’t expect, or even want, a Hollywood adaptation of a best-seller to scrupulously reproduce every detail of the book. Yet I went into Wolfgang Petersen?s $140 million version of ”The Perfect Storm” hoping to hear, at least once, that otherworldly church-organ threnody.
Instead, I was confronted with a different sound: a goopy, inspirational musical score by James Horner (”Titanic”) that might have been composed for Ronald Reagan’s autobiography. More than just overkill, that soundtrack tells us that the men aboard the Andrea Gail, a Gloucester, Mass., swordfishing boat that gets trapped in one of the most violent nor’easters of the 20th century, are having the rah-rah adventure of their lives.
Look, there’s Billy Tyne (George Clooney), the captain, and his scrappy crew, waterlogged yet unbowed, driven to topsy-turvy extremes by one massive breaking wave after another, yelling at each other with gusto through the blackened hurricane night. The film presents their ordeal as a noble crusade of brute physical exertion. But that’s not what Sebastian Junger wrote about. He wrote about fear and awe and the deathly strangeness of primal nature, a phenomenon that few who’ve witnessed it have lived to describe.
There isn’t much to the characters in ”The Perfect Storm,” but then, there wasn’t much in the book, either. Tyne and his mates, like the gruff romantic Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg) and the embattled, prematurely old salts Murphy (John C. Reilly) and Sully (William Fichtner), are saddened New England roughnecks who are struggling to stay afloat economically. They’ve got a hold full of fish and a broken ice machine; unless they agree to crash through two raging storms, risking their lives, their catch is going to spoil. With nuts and bolts vigor, the movie lays out the ”blue collar Hemingway” experience of these contemporary fishermen: the faceoffs with wriggling swordfish, the hooks that can rip into your hand and pull you right under.
Then the turbulence hits — and, oddly enough, it’s the movie that capsizes. Petersen gives us monumental images of waves and rain and wind, but the editing is so choppy that the images don’t build and crest. There isn’t a potent enough sense of the Andrea Gail’s slow submersion in an inexorable meteorological monster. For all of its computer-enhanced technical dexterity, ”The Perfect Storm” looks and feels like too many other movies in which ships struggle to stay afloat as the mad seas thrash around them. Near the end, there is one grandly looming, nearly vertical wave, which picks up the boat as if it were a bathtub toy. It’s a beautiful moment of self-contained terror, yet it never quite convinces you that the storm you’ve been watching is alive.