It's all about the wave. You've seen it in the TV ads, the huge -- no, gigantic -- wall of water that has a boat caught well below its crest. Perhaps it's computer generated, perhaps not. But that wave defines The Perfect Storm, telling us all we need to know about the doom that awaits at the movie's climax.
That fate is already familiar to readers of Sebastian Junger's terrific nonfiction account of the 1991 sinking of the swordfisher Andrea Gail. Director Wolfgang Petersen's filmed adaptation underscores a basic fact: No matter how horrific the mental pictures conjured by Junger's prose may have been, their onscreen counterparts can't help but best them.
The deadly swell is the capper to a film that's full of supercharged imagery, heroics and tension. Like Junger before him, Petersen personalizes the events. He acquaints us with the crew of the Andrea Gail (some from Manatee County) and those close to them. He carefully explores the details of their lives -- their food, their conflicts. their habits. And then he assembles a probable version of the events that led them into history.
"Probable," that is, because no one knows for sure what went on during the final hours of that ill-fated expedition into a North Atlantic confluence of three powerful and deadly weather systems. But based on what we know of the men and women involved, we have enough material to foster our empathy.
Petersen has made a career out of depicting just this sort of peril, beginning (outside his native Germany, at least) with the masterful "Das Boot" and progressing through "In the Line of Fire" and "Air Force One." Bolstered by reality, his depictions here are frightening and authoritative.
As was the case in real life, Petersen's characters serve as mere pawns in the broader story. Small embellishments serve dramatic needs, but even with a strong presence like George Clooney playing skipper Billy Tyne, no single personality dominates.
By the time the Andrea Gail reaches the point of no return, Petersen's visuals overtake Junger's description: the overpowering of the boat, the desperate rescue attempts in the storm, the sea itself. Still, the completely satisfactory use of special effects leaves room for some fine performances, notably those of character actors John C. Reilly and William Fichtner as Murph and Sully, two crew members who remain at each others' throats even when their survival depends on harmony.
Clooney delivers the cool we've come to expect, and as Chris Cotter, the girlfriend of an ill-fated fisherman, Diane Lane shows that she can wring hands with the best of them.
The star here is Petersen, filling the screen with those amazing images. Few actually saw the "perfect storm" in person, but the director makes a convincing case that we're plenty fortunate to have been elsewhere when it struck.