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NewCityNet Riders On The Storm

"The Perfect Storm"'s baptism by water

By Ray Pride

JULY 3, 2000:  Big, billowing studio epics usually don't get called "a piece of craft" nowadays; it's a different "c" word we've gotten used to applying.

"The Perfect Storm" is pretty damn great. Unpretentious and awesomely confident, it is easily Wolfgang Petersen's best film. "Das Boot" is the name that surfaces most often when his name is invoked. Yet that cleanly tooled thrill ride does not admit the level of earnest humanity as we see throughout William Witliff's refined and elegant screenplay, drawn from Sebastian Junger's venturesome best-seller.

"The Perfect Storm" is a romance of the sea, of work and family, and I do not think it puts a foot wrong. It's the second of two all-American epics by German expatriates to be released this week, alongside Roland Emmerich's "The Patriot." Each has made popcorn mega-grossers--"Independence Day," "Air Force One"--that waved the flag but relied upon simplistic scripts that sketch in important questions of life, making comforting, yahoo-dandling gestures toward the unquestionable primacy of life in the U.S.A.

Tender-hearted instead of soft-headed, "The Perfect Storm" is, among other things, however, a feat of sweet casting. John Seale's cinematography is majestic and James Horner's music, like that of the similarly waterlogged "Titanic," propels the movie forward with relentless vigor. But look to the faces and figures: Diane Lane's grin and her expressions of love and loss; Mark Wahlberg's eyes; the set of George Clooney's jaw, the precisely calibrated salt-and-pepper along it, his eyes once the waves begin to assert their primal pull and deadly superiority. John C. Reilly's body language and roiling gargle of a voice; Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's simple joy as story begins and intricate fear as it progresses when considering the fate of Clooney.

It's about occupation as self-definition, love, loss. (Life.) "The Perfect Storm" is elegiac and celebratory at once. "I wanna catch some fish," Clooney's cap'n says, sidelong cock of the head, "It's what I do." Yet the tale never winces at the stakes. Tragedy, in a fictional script, would be rewritten, made nice, in most movies. Yet, like "Titanic," certain things that happen in "The Perfect Storm," as in life, seem to allowed by the gatekeepers of bathos when audiences know the material foreordains gloominess at the end.

"For old times' sake," Reilly tells his ex-wife. "It's the old times that killed us, honey," she says, eyes wide and glittering with first wet. Is this cliche? Yes. On the page. But not when it is enacted with loving precision in a serious, poignant drama. "There you go, flaunting your work ethic," someone flings at the captain. "I don't have a work ethic," Clooney must reply, "I just have work." And when Wahlberg, ever more a remarkably present and fervent performer, delivers the aw-shucks line, "I got a woman I can't stand being more than two feet away from," your heart snaps. Cinematic narrative is pictures, but also words that stand in for emotions, shorthand that when spoken by an actor with all the adroitness their collaborators can yank out of them, punches through our innermost feelings. "The Perfect Storm" is an ideal illustration of telegraphic representation. It's filled with cleanly delineated, superbly observed behaviors. Is this style Hawksian? Alive, that old liar Howard Hawks would gladly and shamelessly steal from the work of this fine director, his estimable writer, his lovingly cast catalogue of so-human faces.

It is perhaps more masterful than a masterwork; the telegraphing of so many emotions among so many characters in under two hours, however beautifully captured, still must do battle with our decades-instilled need to see a film that has one or two conflicts, and must also contend with the marvelous maelstrom of deadly sea and tempest.

When Petersen finds himself upon the high seas, he and his CGI whizzes make the malefic saturated mass of the storm of the century and its imposing, fantastic violence palpable. The scope of this film is effortless and should be seen rather than spoiled by precise description. The water is luminous. The danger is manifest. No man-mad great white would make it out of this black-blue-green-gray yet luminous hazard.

Yet Petersen can also direct a room. It's thrilling to see mature work about love and responsibility, as seamen and their lovers or ex-lovers or potential lovers-to-be tie one on in a Gloucester barroom, and the camera is neither autocrat nor puppy-dog, but an instrument that captures glimpse and eyeline, smile and sorrow, first hellos that will for some turn into unspoken goodbyes. This is perhaps the sort of film that Ron Howard wished to make with the confused script that became "Backdraft," or the deceptive moosh of "Apollo 13." Simple, sincere, direct, a nightmare as large as any you could ever imagine, a dream and close as the tear on the cheek of the one next to you.


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