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Sunday, November 02, 2003


The Perfect Storm (2000)



They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships:
The Twelfth Anniversary of the Disappearance
Of the Andrea Gail in "the Perfect Storm"
By Nicholas Stix


This weekend is the twelfth anniversary of the disappearance of the 70-foot, longline swordfish boat, the Andrea Gail, which went down in the last days of October or the first days of November. For the past week, I've been watching a rented VCR of The Perfect Storm, the 2000 movie version of that disaster, based on Sebastian Junger's 1997 novel of the same name.



Before the movie even begins, you know it's going to be special. As the Warner Brothers logos appear in turn, and we are told that this is based on a true story, we hear the slow, pensive chords of an acoustic guitar, and then the mournful horns, and finally the strings, of James Horner's score.



For eight minutes, starting with the first guitar chord, we are treated to a stunning opening sequence. We see a ship in the harbor of Gloucester, Massachusetts; a fisherman pouring out a container of fish; a shipbuilder at work, much as his ancestors might have done, 350 years before him; men on the dock working with netting; Gloucester City Hall, and the honor roll inside; the statue of the "Fisherman at the Wheel"; a storm over the ocean; a sleeping woman crying out from a nightmare the name of her seafaring lover; and fishing boats' return with their catch, the next morning. A sense of foreboding pervades the proceedings.



Whereas in other towns, the honor roll would be of men lost in foreign wars, at Gloucester City Hall, it is of
the over 10,000 Gloucester fishermen lost at sea
, from circa 1623 unto the present day. The Fisherman at the Wheel statue, erected in 1923 for the town's 300th anniversary, carries the words from the 107th psalm: "They that go down to the sea in ships."

(Sounds like grounds for yet another frivolous, ACLU separation-of-church-and-state lawsuit!)

When the Andrea Gail and her sister boat, the Hannah Boden, triumphantly enter the harbor, the mournful theme is replaced by a loud, celebratory one, with electric guitars and rapid bursts of horns. Women run to the dock, to greet their men; children speed there on bikes, to meet their fathers. It is as if the men were returning war heroes. And they are heroes, every last one of them.



Some swordfish boat payloads burst with fish weighing almost 500 pounds; others' pithy catches are made up of fish that fail to make it to 100 pounds. We hear true Massachusetts accents. Along with the fishermen greeted by their families, we see those who have no families to greet them, or whose families have deserted them, men who work so hard, and for so little, that many cannot even afford a car. Their work, little changed over centuries, lacks all glamor, and they live without dreams or sentimentality. And yet, they do battle with nature, and do essential, honorable work that few today could physically survive doing, let alone do well.



A fisherman who passed away at sea, is carried off on a stretcher. Horner has the celebratory and mournful themes play point and counterpoint to each other. Even in joy, there is sadness.



The bringing in of a catch is rough, mundane work, if you're busy at it, but it is a thing of wonder, to watch. Director Wolfgang Peterson, cinematographer John Seale, and Horner, give the proceedings the epic treatment they deserve, with the actors on the dock exquisitely choreographed.



An aspiring film maker would do well to study those first eight minutes a few hundred times, to learn how to establish plot, place, and characters.



During the late 1970s, and again in 1986, I worked summers in restaurants in Edgartown, on Martha's Vineyard, a tourist trap off Massachussetts' Cape Cod. In 1986, after getting hired as a potwasher, I ended up managing the biggest seafood restaurant on the island, Lawry's. Lawry's had begun as a seafood store, and still sold the freshest fish and seafood (especially lobster) on the island. The mother of my boss, Harold Lawry, had founded the restaurant. (What I didn't find out until after I'd been hired, and Harold -- who hadn't known whose son I was -- told me, was that my old man had built the place.) Every afternoon, while we prepped for the dinner crowd, an old drunk would sit silently on a crate, in the alley by our kitchen. He looked like a bum. He turned out to be the owner, Mr. Lawry, the fisherman who brought in the fish we served up every night.



Those who ply heroic trades, often cut a less than dashing figure.



In late October, 1991, as tropical hurricane Grace came north from Bermuda, she hit a storm system off Sable Island, on the Canadian coast, and was hit by a third system, which had hitched a ride on the jet stream down from Canada, to form an apocalyptic "tripleheader," the meteorological equivalent of a hydrogen bomb. With 100-foot waves, it was the storm of the century. The perfect storm.



George Clooney stars as Capt. Billy Tyne, who thinks there's nothing greater on earth, than being a swordfish boat captain. But Tyne has fallen on hard times, apparently lost his touch for finding where the fish are, and might lose his "site" (boat), if he doesn't start bringing in some big loads. Fast. And so, at the end of the season, he decides to go out for one last run. But what Capt. Tyne doesn't tell anyone, especially his boat's owner, who has expressly forbidden him from doing it, is that he is heading out to the Flemish Cap, hundreds of miles east of his usual fishing grounds, where there's "lots of fish ... and lots of weather." What Capt. Tyne doesn't know, is that he is heading straight into hell.



A proud but desperate man, Tyne practically shanghais his men into the additional trip, threatening them with losing their "sites" (in this context, jobs) on his boat.



At dawn, when the men assemble to leave, bidding their women farewell, they look like motley gunslingers headed to the big gunfight, evoking the scene in The Wild Bunch, when Bill Holden's "Pike Bishop" says to Ernie Borgnine's "Dutch," "Let's go."



Eventually, the men must choose whether to risk their ship and their lives for a huge catch, or return home abject failures. The decision isn't about greed, it's about honor and pride.



While The Perfect Storm abounds in seat-of-the-pants action, it is always about the character of men in dire straits, which is why we care about them.



Star George Clooney is gripping but imperfect. Although Clooney's character tells us he is from Pensacola, Florida, he speaks with the same non-descript, Northern accent Clooney always uses. (The real Billy Tyne was a Gloucester native, who went down to Bradenton, Florida, to hire Murphy and Moran.) Clooney is a talented actor, but alas, a lazy one. As Bobby Shatford, Mark Wahlberg (Clooney's buddy from Three Kings) is less talented. Though Wahlberg is playing a local, his accent is less than convincing. But passionaria Diane Lane, as Shatford's lover, Christina "Chris" Cotter, has the accent down, and is believable, if at times over the top, as a woman desperately in love, who sees a chance out of a dead-end life, a chance that she fears the sea will steal from her. And Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is solid as Linda Greenlaw, who skippers the Hannah Boden. A much more successful swordfish boat captain than Tyne, Greenlaw beckons to the hardbitten loner, in her restrained way, as the partner he so desperately needs and desires, if only he has the sense to reach out to her.



(Capt. Greenlaw, the only female swordfish boat captain in the history of Gloucester, and perhaps, the entire East Coast, has since become a successful author, writing on the fisherman's life.)



The supporting roles are exquisitely cast. As Dale "Murph" Murphy, John C. Reilly's face is a map of loss and regret. Murph's crewmate-antagonist, David "Sully" Sullivan (William Fichtener) has seemingly little to gain or lose in life. Michael "Bugsy" Moran (John Hawkes) is a man who, in spite of being consistently beaten down by life, has not lost his charm or sense of humor. As easygoing Jamaican Alfred Pierre, of New York City, Allen Payne makes the most of a sketchily-written role.



Even the smallest roles are cast with the greatest of care. Bob Gunton portrays a pompous sailboat owner, whose guests are played by veteran Karen Allen and Tony Award-winner Cherry Jones, respectively. Rusty Schwimmer portrays a kindhearted Gloucesterwoman. Janet Wright plays Bobby Shatford's devoted mother (who is always worried when he is off fishing), a barkeep who is the Andrea Gail's unofficial den mother, and who passed away in 1999. Michael Ironsides portrays Bob Brown, the gruff, unsentimental owner of the Andrea Gail and the Hannah Boden. And the five men who play a Coast Guard rescue team, who end up fighting for their own lives, make the most of their brief roles.



The special affects are marvelous, without being "too good." They were so realistic, as to maintain their grip on my wife and me. Special effects that are too good, depict things that couldn't possibly occur in reality. When I see such effects, I feel no concern as to whether things pan out on the screen.



The Andrea Gail went down somewhere off the coast of Newfoundland, taking her crew of six down with her: Michael Moran, Dale Murphy, Alfred Pierre, Robert Shatford, David Sullivan and William Tyne. Neither the ship nor any of her crew has ever been found.



Sebastian Junger created The Perfect Storm Foundation for fishermen's children, out of respect for "the hardships of the job, [and] the skill and rugged commitment of those who make their living on the sea."



Early in the story, Capt. Billy Tyne muses to Capt. Linda Greenlaw, "The fog's just lifting. Throw off your bow line, throw off your stern. You head out the South Channel, past Rocky Neck, Ten Pound Island. Past Niles Pond, where I skated as a kid. Blow your airhorn and throw a wave to the lighthouse keeper's kid on Thatcher Island. The birds show up -- black backs, herring gulls, big dumb ducks. The sun hits ya, head North, open up to 12, steamin' now. The guys are busy, you're in charge. Ya know what? You're a goddam swordboat captain! Is there anything better in the world?"


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