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THE PERFECT STORM

by: James Berardinelli

I can still recall the power and fury of the storm now, nearly nine years after it struck - the rain playing an incessant staccato drum-beat on my windows, the wind shaking the shutters until they broke free and blew away into the mid-day's twilight gloom, and the lightning lancing the sky despite the chilly temperatures. The storm, which struck with a suddenness that wrecked almost every weatherman's three-day forecast, was given many names in the popular media, including the Great Halloween Nor'easter and the Storm of the Century. Meteorologists called it "The Perfect Storm" - an example of the kind of weather event that can only occur under the rarest of circumstances. In this case, it took the convergence of an eastward-moving cold front, a low pressure system off Sable Island, and a hurricane headed out to sea to create a monster.

In 1997, almost six years after the Great Halloween Nor'easter, journalist Sebastian Junger published The Perfect Storm, an account of some of the most dramatic and memorable events associated with the late-October 1991 weather system. His novel, which was uncompromisingly factual (he neither speculated on things that no living man had seen nor invented dialogue) gave insights into meteorology, the fishing industry, Coast Guard rescue operations, and how dozens of individuals were affected by the storm. The book, which is a taut thriller, became a surprising #1 best-seller. I read it based on word-of-mouth and concluded that it was not likely to be made into a movie, even though studios were trying to nail down the rights. I was, of course, wrong.

Given that I believed The Perfect Storm to be unfilmable, I approached the motion picture with a mixture of curiosity and skepticism. I was pleasantly surprised by the result. The movie is as faithful to the novel as a non-documentary could be, sticking close to the facts and excising few of the book's numerous subplots. Much of the detailed scientific jargon has been removed, but enough remains that we understand exactly what is happening and what it portends. And the sense of danger and urgency that compels a viewer to turn the pages of Junger's book is much in evidence throughout the 128-minute film.

When the summer is complete, Gladiator may stand out as the best mainstream release, but The Perfect Storm will almost certainly be the most intense. Directed by veteran filmmaker Wolfgang Petersen, who is responsible for the greatest submarine movie of all time, Das Boot, as well as American thrillers like In the Line of Fire and Air Force One, the film, which starts out slowly and calmly with 45 minutes of set-up, turns into a white-knuckle ride into a psychotic weather system. The Perfect Storm is not without flaws - there is too much going on and some of the invented dialogue is cheesy - but it is undeniably a thrilling experience.

The primary focus of the film (as well as the book) is the six-man crew of the swordfishing vessel Andrea Gail -- Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg), Dale Murphy (John C. Reilly), David Sullivan (William Fichtner), Bugsy Moran (John Hawkes), Alfred Pierre (Allen Payne), and the captain, Billy Tyne (George Clooney). After returning to shore with a poor haul that earns him less than $6000 (and members of his crew under $3000), Tyne decides to take the Andrea Gail out one more time this season, intending to head east past his usual fishing grounds, the Grand Banks, all the way to the Flemish Cap, which is almost off most North American fishing charts. The five members of his crew grumble (in fact, one backs out and is replaced by Sullivan), but agree to come because they need the money. Shatford, urged by his girlfriend Christina (Diane Lane) to stay behind, almost isn't on the boat when it sails. As he tells Tyne, "I love the sea, but I can't stand to be more than two feet from my woman."

The trip to the Flemish

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