The Deep Blue-Collar Sea

The Perfect Storm is a well-meaning downer. Mel gets mad in The Patriot.

The $140 million adaptation of Sebastian Junger’s best seller The Perfect Storm is the rarest sort of summer-blockbuster-thrill-machine: a work of integrity. It’s the true story of a boatload of swordfisherman driven by money woes to head further and further out to sea—this despite a catastrophic confluence of weather systems (including a hurricane) bearing down on them. The director, Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, 1981), has made it his mission to honor these roughhewn martyrs—members of a tribe that routinely pits itself against unpredictable tides and lethal storm fronts. Partly filmed in Gloucester, Mass., from which the swordfish boat Andrea Gail set forth in October 1991, The Perfect Storm has been sanctioned by survivors and by the relatives of those who died: You can sense them hovering, contributing details, reminding the filmmakers that these were real human beings. Maybe that’s why the movie feels so overawed: It’s like a memorial service with killer special effects.

Junger’s book is in the tradition of Norman MacLean’s YoungMen and Fire, in which the author goes through the paces of people in the wrong place at the wrong time and tries to account for how and why they got there. It’s ramshackle, but it’s terrific journalism: Junger regularly interrupts his slender story for pages of history and meteorology and geography. And he isn’t just writing about the freak convergence of weather systems but the freak convergence of ways of life. A lot of these swordfishermen are living like addicts: spending grueling months at sea and then returning home with too much money in their pockets, so that they drink themselves into oblivion until their boats go out again. The book is full of derring-do, but I didn’t read it thinking, “Wow, what a movie!” The narrative is too fragmented, and the fate of the most interesting characters pure conjecture: The people who get saved are nowhere near as compelling as the ones who perish.

The screenwriter, Bill Wittliff, has turned it into an old-fashioned left-wing melodrama, in which noble working-class heroes are driven to desperate ends by ruthless Über-capitalists. The good guys are Capt. Billy (George Clooney), mate Bobby (Mark Wahlberg), and a crew of character actors including John C. Reilly, who looks as if he could model for a box of Gorton’s fish sticks. Wittliff hasn’t monumentalized these men, but he has given them a lot of pseudo-poetic drivel to show off their artistic souls. Clooney recites a humdinger of a monologue to Linda, a starry-eyed fellow captain (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), in which he takes her through the journey out of Gloucester harbor and concludes: “You know what you are? You’re a goddamned sword-boat captain. Is there anything better in the world?” (Just when you manage to forget this spew, it gets resurrected for the fadeout.) Meanwhile, Bobby is in bed with his worried girlfriend, Chris (Diane Lane), and describing himself as “Lyin’ next to you, all warm and sweet, wishin’ the morning would never come …” Even when he’s on the verge of being swallowed by giant waves, Bobby is reciting love poems.

The owner of the Andrea Gail, Bobby Brown, doesn’t have a speck of poetry. He’s played by Michael Ironside, a hulking, mean-looking guy who in Scanners (1981) dug a hole in his forehead with his finger and then smiled. When we meet him here, he’s shrugging off the death of an old sailor on one of his boats—a reaction that the other characters greet with revulsion, although once the corpse of the man is unloaded no one ever refers to him again. Brown pays out the crew’s meager wages (he keeps half the take and deducts expenses from the rest) and threatens to replace them if their next catch isn’t bigger. An unfair system? “What it is is what it is,” he says prosaically. It’s then that Capt. Billy announces he’ll go out once more, despite the season, and “bring back more fish than you ever dreamed of.”

There’s nothing wrong with making a conscienceless capitalist the root of the problems, but The Perfect Storm often plays like a stilted ‘30s indomitability-of-the-common-man picture. Wittliff has invented a ridiculous conflict between two fishermen, Murph (John C. Reilly) and Sully (William Fichtner)—they threaten to murder each other for no ostensible reason—so that one can get dragged from the boat by an errant fish hook and the other save his life. When the crew discusses going through the storm rather than docking somewhere and letting a quarter-million-dollars worth of fish go bad, the skipper says it’s time to “separate the men from the boys,” and adds, “We’re Gloucestermen!”

What isn’t too clear is why Gloucestermen never listen to a weather report or chat with anyone on the radio except fellow captain Mastrantonio. Clooney is a handsome devil and a smart, unhistrionic actor, but is Capt. Billy supposed to be so out of it? The first time he has even an inkling he’s in trouble is when Mastrantonio starts shrieking at him over a crackling connection: “The storms have collided. Get outta there! You’re steering into a bomb! You’re headed right for the middle of the monster!” For that matter, why does the Boston weatherman (Christopher McDonald) who first notices the systems converging (“You could be a meteorologist all your life and not see this. … It would be … the perfect storm!”) not get on the horn at once and tell everyone to head for shore?

How are the waves? Pretty cool. As the storm progresses, the deck (and the cameras mounted on it) tilt at ever more severe angles—from 30 degrees to 45 degrees to 60 degrees; it’s no wonder the actors were reportedly throwing up. You don’t always see the mountainous swells until lightning flashes—then, suddenly visible, they loom over the boats like mythic demons. The technology is dazzling: It saves the movie. Still, it feels like technology. The disaster scenes were shot in a tank on the Warner’s lot, and the vistas look like matte paintings by J.M. Turner. The rocking of the boat is smooth and metronomical—I got more seasick at The BlairWitch Project (1999). It’s odd to think that if Jaws (1975) had been made today, Steven Spielberg wouldn’t have had to go through hell off the shores of Martha’s Vineyard: He’d have shot most of the film on a soundstage and finished it with computers. And it wouldn’t have had the same, electrifying verisimilitude. The Perfect Storm is a prodigious effort, but in more ways than one it’s tanked.

T hat’s not the case with The Patriot, which is a blazing success on its own rancid terms. The hordes of Gladiator mavens will probably feel as strongly about this one, since it’s Gladiator with muskets. They might even like it better, since its brutality is suffused with righteousness. The hero, Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson), isn’t killing faceless slaves but effete English soldiers who’ve coldly murdered members of his family, and when he turns vigilante and picks them off people cheer the way they did when the aliens got blasted in Independence Day (1996). (This is Independence Day: The Prequel, and directed by the same Teutonic schlockmeister, Roland Emmerich.)

When we meet Martin, he’s a Carolina widower with a brood of kids and a farm, and he wants no part of the American Revolution. As a young soldier in the French and Indian Wars, he participated in atrocities, and now his aim is to withdraw from politics and raise his family in peace. But we know he’ll get drawn in. The formula for Mel Gibson action pictures is MMM: Make Mel Mad. So the war spills onto his land, and the man of peace becomes a man of savagery. Bashing in British heads with a Cherokee tomahawk and melting in and out of the landscape, Martin becomes known as the Ghost. (It’s shameless the way this onetime Indian hunter appropriates the imagery of Native Americans.) He also leads a ragtag but dedicated band of militiamen. Most historians have noted that militias were an irritant to George Washington and committed their own share of atrocities, but that’s not the The Patriot’s point of view. Here, they save Washington’s butt.

It’s depressing that this first movie in years to dramatize the American Revolution has so little to do with the politics of secession and so much to do with pop-culture themes of vigilantism. As Elvis Mitchell notes in the NewYork Times, the mantra is always: “This time it’s personal.” Here the bad guy, a sadistic English colonel (Jason Isaacs), gets a kick out of picking off unarmed little boys and burning women and children alive in churches. (“These rustics are so inept. It nearly takes the honor out of victory.”) Naturally, he has to be kept around for the protracted final fight with Mel, so that, as he’s about to deliver the death blow (he thinks!), he can sneer something about the better man having won. You want to see him die slowly and with a great deal of hemorrhaging—and, you’ll be pleased to know, these filmmakers are not in the business of withholding pleasure.

When Gibson directed Braveheart (1995), he cribbed his battles from Orson Welles, but he cribbed well, and the fighting had a visceral power. Emmerich’s fight scenes don’t carry the same charge: Heads get blown off, bodies fall by the score, and the popcorn munching is uninterrupted. Still, Emmerich and writer Robert Rodat know which buttons to push, and there are a lot of people who find that galvanizing: They think movies that don’t push their buttons are not real movies. It probably doesn’t even matter that Gibson’s performance is so perfunctory. Late in The Patriot, he has an extraordinary scene in which he weeps over a fallen loved one, but the rest of the time there’s a note of movie-star glibness in his readings. Maybe, in a film like this, that’s a mark of sanity.

You’ve probably read about the scene in which Benjamin tosses guns to his young sons, which seems calculated to provoke cries of glee from gun activists and tsk-tsks from liberals. But I won’t take the bait. I’m solidly behind the right to bear arms in the 18th century.