Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Perfect Man Vs. Nature Movie

Bobby (Nark Wahlberg): I got a woman who I can't stand to be two feet away from.

Captain (George Clooney): Congratulations.

Bobby: Then again, I love to fish.

Captain: Son, you've got a problem.

I enjoyed "The Perfect Storm," which premiered on this day in 2000.

I didn't see it at the theater but on TV about two years later. I remember it vividly. It was the Fourth of July, slightly more than two years after its theatrical debut.

And I remember when that storm struck the northeast in October 1991 — because I took that week off from my job to review for and take my comprehensive exams, which I had to pass to receive my master's degree. I did pass my exams — in spite of periodic breaks in which I followed the progress of the storm. It was a big news story that week. It slipped my memory in the next few years, but the memory came rushing back when the movie was in the theaters 15 years ago.

It even seems to me that I heard reports at the time of a fishing boat that was lost in the storm — and her crew was presumed lost as well. Perhaps that is something of which I have persuaded myself since seeing the movie. Perhaps I didn't really hear such reports. But I definitely remember hearing about the storm and seeing footage on the news of the battering the northeast coast took.

The odyssey of that fishing boat — the Andrea Gail — formed the basis of Sebastian Junger's best–selling book and the film adaptation that was directed by Wolfgang Petersen (director of 1981's "Das Boot").

Of course, by the time people saw the movie, everyone had been reminded of the storm. The trailer made sure of that.

Film critic Roger Ebert conceded that. He wrote that the movie was "about ships tossed by a violent storm. The film doesn't have complex and involving characters, but they are not needed. It doesn't tell a sophisticated story and doesn't need to; the main events are known to most of the audience before the movie begins. All depends on the storm. I do not mind admitting I was enthralled."

So was I, in the same way that I am enthralled by dramatizations of other historic events, especially ones in which the force of nature simply overpowers humans. I suspect that was part of the attraction to "Titanic." More than 1,500 people were doomed when that ship left on its maiden voyage even though it had not struck the iceberg yet. Four days passed between the time Titanic set sail and the time it struck the iceberg. The audience knew it was simply a matter of time.

Just about everyone who saw that movie knew the story of the Titanic. They knew that most of the people on that ship would die — and anyone who had done any research into the story knew the names of most of the primary characters who would die.

"The Perfect Storm" was the perfect suspense story. The audience knew the crew of the fishing boat had been struggling, and the captain was making one last roll of the dice, trying to bring home a catch that would allow them all to live comfortably through the winter months. And they were remarkably successful on that fishing trip. But, in the movie, a critical event occurred. The refrigeration on the ship conked out, and the choice was simple. They could go full speed ahead, hoping to outrun the storm they had been hearing about and make it back to land before the catch was spoiled, or they could wait out the storm — and almost certainly lose all of the swordfish they had labored to catch.

I don't know if the crew really was that successful. The need to get back to land to cash in on a big catch added some dramatic urgency to the story, but it all could have been as simple as the crew having another poor experience and just deciding to call it quits and trying to make it to shore ahead of the storm. But no one would pay to see that.

Such stories — if they're done well — make me want to call out to the characters to go back before it is too late. "Stay where you are!" I wanted to shout at my TV screen the last time I watched "The Perfect Storm."

"The storm's like the shark in 'Jaws.' It is A LOT bigger than you think it is."

It was what appealed to me about an alternate account of the John F. Kennedy assassination from the mid–1980s Twilight Zone series.

Some of the story was based on verifiable facts. When the storm hit and who was on board the Andrea Gail are part of the record. The parallel story — about a sailboat caught in the storm — is also part of the record.

But the things that were said and done on those vessels are not known to those who were not there, particularly in the case of the Andrea Gail. There were survivors from the sailboat; there were none from the fishing boat.

"The film's best scenes are more or less without dialogue, except for desperately shouted words," Ebert wrote. "They are about men trapped in a maelstrom of overpowering forces. They respond heroically, because they must, but they are not heroes; their motivation is need. They have had a bad season, have made one risky last trip, have ventured beyond the familiar Grand Banks fishing grounds to the problematical Flemish Cap."

It probably didn't require much imagination to figure out the kind of frantic scenes that probably were played out on board the Andrea Gail in her final minutes and hours. It required more creativity, I guess, to set the stage for ultimately futile heroics. For example, there was conflict on the boat between characters played by John C. Reilly and William Fichtner. Jealousy over Reilly's character's wife was strongly implied as the reason, yet Fichtner dove into the sea to save Reilly, who had been caught in a fishing line and yanked into the water, where he surely would have drowned if he hadn't been helped.

As dramatic as the fictionalized scenes on the Andrea Gail were, it seems to me the most dramatic moments may have been the Coast Guard's actual successful efforts to save the folks on the sailboat — and the unsuccessful attempt to save one of the Guardsmen who was lost in the choppy seas.

Whether the scenes were true or not, the heroes were the men. The women were supporting characters, even a woman on the sailboat (played by Karen Allen) and a colleague (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) of the captain of the Andrea Gail (George Clooney).

So the audience had to know that some of the movie was made up. Heck, even movies that tell familiar dramatic stories find ways to ramp up the drama even more. But I think that the legitimately dramatic elements — even if partially made up simply because the whole story is not known — were dramatic enough. Ebert wrote that he was "wrung out" by the end of the movie.

I felt much the same way.

A word or two should be said about Diane Lane, an actress I have been watching for a long time. Hers was a supporting character, the girlfriend of Mark Wahlberg's character who was left behind when the Andrea Gail set sail on her final voyage.

She provided a face and a voice for many of the emotions that were undoubtedly surging through the audience — her frustration at the lack of information, her concern for the crew's safety.

I've been observing her career for many years — since her debut in 1979's "A Little Romance" — and I don't think Lane's role in "The Perfect Storm" was her best — but she is consistently good. Her role probably could have used a bit more depth — but, as Ebert observed, depth of characters wasn't necessary to tell the tale of the perfect storm.

"It's possible to criticize the sketchy characters," Ebert wrote, "but pointless. The movie is about the appalling experience of fighting for your life in a small boat in a big storm. If that is what you want to see, you will see it done here about as well as it can be done."