It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it” implies that there aren’t some people who actually enjoy doing a dirty job. As much as The Perfect Storm is an intense and terrifying man-against-nature action movie, it’s an unsentimental and unclichéd drama about, as mythologist Joseph Campbell termed it, following your bliss: doing what you’re “made to do” even in the face of opposition from all around you, even to the point of risking your life.
The homecoming, in the fall of 1991, of Gloucester, Massachusetts, swordfishermen is a happy one, as the men — and a lone female captain, Linda Greenlaw (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) — greet their families and friends after an extended absence. But the take on Captain Billy Tyne’s (George Clooney: Three Kings, South Park: Bigger, Longer And Uncut) boat, the Andrea Gail, is “a record low,” and since the fishermen are paid a cut of the catch, it means record low paychecks for them. Greenlaw has done fine — Tyne is just having a run of bad luck. So he decides to take his boat out once more for the year, though it’s a dangerous time of year, at the tail end of hurricane season. His crew, for financial as well as personal reasons, are in, too.
But this is a life that breaks up families and ruins relationships: Tyne, divorced, never sees his daughters; Dale “Murph” Murphy (John C. Reilly: Magnolia, The Thin Red Line) has an adoring young son who is shattered by his parents’ divorce; rookie Bobby Shatford (Mark Wahlberg: Boogie Nights, Traveller) is finding that the job is coming between him and the woman he loves, Christina Cotter (Diane Lane: My Dog Skip, The Virginian); the life has kept Mike “Bugsy” Moran (John Hawkes: Playing God) from ever finding someone to love in the first place. And it’s a nasty, dangerous job, too, with accidents too frequent to count, as they note, usually occurring far from the reach of an ambulance.
But these are not, for the most part, unhappy men. In a moving monologue, Tyne shares with Greenlaw the romance and poetry he finds in this dirty job. And in strikingly exuberant scenes largely free of dialogue, director Wolfgang Petersen and the terrific cast show us the joy these men take from their work, whether they’re setting their bait lines, hooking in enormous swordfish, eviscerating their catch, or packing fish bodies with ice amidst the gore and blood on deck. The cast is so utterly convincing in their roles that at times The Perfect Storm takes on an almost documentary feel. These guys love what they do so much that you understand why they’d pit their lives against Mother Nature.
When several intense storms in the Atlantic converge, they create what a meteorologist terms the “perfect storm,” one that spawns 50-foot waves that pitch massive freighters about like playthings. As Twister showed us awesome weather we’d never seen so realistically depicted before, so does Storm: huge walls of water looming, horrifyingly, out of the darkness to buffet the Andrea Gail, immense ocean swells roiling angrily, a stormchaser plane flying right into the heart of a hurricane. It’s some of the most furious, most vicious imagery ever committed to film.
But without the human drama, The Perfect Storm would be nothing but eye candy. Before Tyne’s foolhardy decision to try to steam right through the storm — a decision that nevertheless is the only one the character could make — there is tension amongst the crew of the Andrea Gail: Murph and David “Sully” Sullivan (William Fichtner: Passion of Mind, Go) are constantly at each other’s throats. And then, entirely separate from the Gail‘s story but still vital to the film, there’s the small yacht headed to Bermuda, captained by Alexander McAnally III (Bob Gunton: Patch Adams, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), who’s accompanied by Melissa Brown (Karen Allen) and Edie Bailey (Cherry Jones: Erin Brockovich, Cradle Will Rock). McAnally’s refusal to call for help at the first hint of bad weather may be more a case of stubbornness than of following his bliss, but once the women override his authority and call in the Coast Guard, we meet more men in love with their work. You’re tempted to call the Coast Guard rescue team as insane as Tyne, diving right into the seemingly enraged ocean to pick up the yachtsmen, flying their helicopter on fumes for a rescue attempt of the Gail till they have to give up and ditch into the stormy waters. The Coast Guard team are barely characters in the sense that we learn little about them beyond their expertise at what they do, but we’re left with little doubt that, like the swordfishermen, they can’t not do what they do.
The Perfect Storm is a rare treat in a summer movie: one that’s sure to endure as much as a moving drama as it will as a thrilling action flick. This is a terrific movie, in all senses of the word.