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Blown Away by the 'Storm'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 30, 2000


    'The Perfect Storm' George Clooney plays a determined fisherman in "The Perfect Storm." (Warner Bros.)
If a drama's effectiveness can be measured by the intimidating power of its villain, then "The Perfect Storm" doesn't just tip the scale. It sends it flying.

The villain in this case, is big, bad weather, as in an unholy convergence of three weather patterns over the North Atlantic: a cold front from Canada, a low-pressure system around Sable Island (way off Nova Scotia) and a northbound hurricane from Bermuda.

Based on Sebastian Junger's true account of one of the 20th century's most awesome storms, the movie is about what happened to the crew members of the Andrea Gail, who were caught in the terrifying maelstrom in the fall of 1991. Of course, this is another case of Hollywood bringing lights, camera and summer-movie action into actual history, so you should expect ample liberty-taking in terms of crew conversations and behavior.

But as a movie, this is exciting stuff, thanks to stunning effects from Industrial Light & Magic. The audience can vicariously experience the terrifying, mega-gale winds and jaw-droppingly high waves the crew surely experienced. And who better to make a thrill ride out of real terror than director Wolfgang Petersen, whose "Das Boot" superbly evoked the horrors of U-boat warfare?

In Gloucester, Mass., fishing skipper Billy Tyne (George Clooney) is going through lean times. The Grand Banks is yielding fish to his friendly rival, Captain Greenlaw (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) of the Hannah Bowden, but it isn't doing diddly for him. After another unsuccessful fishing expedition for swordfish, Bill cajoles his dispirited crew into doing a turnaround voyage.

During the movie's initial hour, as Bill reassembles the crew, we become acquainted with their stories. Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg) needs quick cash to pay his divorce lawyer and start his new life with girlfriend Chris Cotter (Diane Lane). Dale "Murph" Murphy (John C. Reilly) is hurting because he can't spend time with his son, who lives with Murph's estranged wife.

And then there's Jamaican ladies' man Alfred Pierre (Allen Payne); the romantically lonely Bugsy (John Hawkes); and Sully (William Fichtner), a sullen, somewhat volatile guy who has a running feud with Murph.

The six-man crew heads out again, its hopes of better money renewed. But when the Grand Banks prove fruitless again, Billy takes the boat to the far-off Flemish Cap, where – as an old salt puts it – there's "lots of fish and lots of weather." Unfortunately for Billy and crew, they find both. The crew who – rather unbelievably – don't seem to realize the extent of the storm that's approaching, find themselves too late in a terrible quandary: Do they dump the best haul they've had in recent memory, so they can sit out the storm? Or do they save their profitable fish from spoiling and ride home through the hellish storm?

Well, what do you think they're going to do?

Director Petersen, who also made "Air Force One" and "In the Line of Fire," and screenwriter Bill Wittliff (who adapted "Lonesome Dove" for the television miniseries), know how to mix human interest with struggles for survival.

We're caught up in the individual stories of the crew, as well as the attempts of the Air Force and Coast Guard to rescue them. Also facing peril at sea is the Mistral, an ocean-sailing yacht headed for Bermuda that finds itself at the mercy of the angry winds. A sequence in which a sea chopper attempts to lower a cage to the Mistral's terrified three-person crew makes extraordinary viewing. So does the helicopter's later operation, in which it tries to save the Andrea Gail from the towering waves.

Oh, those waves! Particularly the one that stands like a saltwater Everest before the Andrea Gail at a climactic moment in the movie. Here's where humankind takes its measure of nature, where Billy, Bobby and their colleagues find out whether they'll make it home or become one of 10,000 Gloucester seamen claimed by the Atlantic since 1623. Do they make it over that final ascent? You know you want to find out.

THE PERFECT STORM (PG-13, 130 minutes) – Contains obscenity, sexual situations and foreboding weather patterns.


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