The Perfect Storm
Produced by Baltimore Spring Creek and Warner Bros.
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen
Screenplay by William D. Wittliff, based on Sebastian Junger’s book
Released by Warner Bros.

The Patriot
Produced by Centropolis Entertainment and Mutual Film Company
Directed by Roland Emmerich
Screenplay by Robert Rodat
Released by Columbia Pictures

With few exceptions, there is an inverse relationship between a film’s special-effects budget and its artistic imagination: Call it the Jurassic Law. When Steven Spielberg sicced his computerized dinosaurs on us, he proved unequivocally that the more money spent on making things look dazzlingly real, the slacker the plot and the flatter the characterization.

The Perfect Storm conforms perfectly to the Jurassic Law. Director Wolfgang Petersen was given a cool $130 million to adapt Sebastian Junger’s best-selling account of the devastating storm that hit the Northeast coastline in 1991, sinking, among other things, the ill-fated fishing boat Andrea Gail off Gloucester, Massachusetts. He spared no expense lavishing the screen with computer-generated images of monstrous weather and savage seas. Spectacular? Without question, especially the weirdly (if improbably) illuminated night scenes. They’re nothing less than darkness visible.

As hellish spectacles go, however, this one quickly loses its power to unnerve. Other than actually drowning, the worst thing about being lost on the high seas, even vicariously, is the sheer monotony of the experience. Watching waves approach in an endless, swelling parade numbs the emotions, making on-screen drama difficult to sustain. Stephen Crane recognized this problem in “The Open Boat,” in which he recounted his experience of being adrift in a lifeboat after suffering shipwreck. He remarks that “a singular disadvantage of the sea lies in the fact that after successfully surmounting one wave you discover that there is another behind it just as important and just as nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats.” In these conditions, he sourly concludes, “one can get an idea of the resources of the sea in the line of waves.” Crane resorted to irony because he knew there was no other way to make his reader pay attention to his waterlogged predicament.

Unfortunately, Petersen doesn’t have Crane’s wit. To avoid trying our patience, he repeatedly cuts to another crisis, that of the sailing sloop Satori, caught in the same storm off Hyannisport. There’s warrant for this juxtaposition in Junger’s book, but on the screen it only succeeds in disorienting the viewer. Raging seas off Gloucester look remarkably similar to those off Hyannisport; pretty soon, you don’t know where you are. What’s worse, you don’t really care. Like the poor souls in their boats, you feel trapped in a hideously unvarying nightmare.

As for characterization, Peterson leaves it so undeveloped that the fate of the Andrea Gail‘s crew seems less tragic than irritating. If he and his scriptwriter, William D. Wittliff, have it right-and that’s a big “if in this speculative recreation of events to which there is no living witness—we are to believe the fully seasoned and highly regarded Captain Billy Tyne (George Clooney) would have been boneheaded enough to try to get home by sailing directly into the storm, when he could just as easily have stayed out of its range. Furthermore, he is supposed to have made this decision after discovering that his radio was out of commission.

The script tries to make this decision plausible by having the ship’s refrigerator break down, thus leaving the men with a profitable catch of swordfish that will spoil unless they return home as soon as possible. I may be an ignorant landlubber, but this doesn’t wash. This was not a Caribbean cruise; it happened in October off the coast of Gloucester. In the film, the men are always dressed in thermal shirts, sweaters, rain slickers, and woolen caps. We’re never shown a thermometer, but I suspect the temperature was rarely above 40 degrees Fahrenheit and often considerably lower. Just how quickly would the fish go rotten? Would there not have been time to wait the storm out? Whatever happened on the Andrea Gail, the film’s scenario seems more ersatz pathos than honest realism. Petersen wants us to see Clooney and his crew shouting their defiance at the storm and plowing bravely into its tumult. “We’re Gloucester men,” Clooney reminds his stalwart crew, as if this were reason enough to behave with suicidal disrespect for nature. I can’t help suspecting Tyne and his men have been done a grave disservice.

Although there are no storms to speak of in The Patriot, it nevertheless sinks of its own leaden clichés. Still, there’s much to commend in this story of a man drawn reluctantly into the American Revolution.

First, there’s the recreation of revolution-era South Carolina, seemingly exact in every detail. Charleston’s pastel row houses, its merchant’s exchange, the sea wall, the surrounding estates all look absolutely convincing. Then there’s the reenactment of 18th-century warfare that powerfully captures the sheer madness of men marching across fields in formation, firing their muskets at each other. These youths present themselves to their enemies as living targets, occasionally vomiting and wetting themselves with fear. There’s a harrowing dreamlike quality to these clockwork engagements, with each row of soldiers taking its turn to load and fire. With each fusillade, another 20 or so men pitch forward, spurting blood from bullet wounds. In one scene, a British cannonball whizzes through the line, taking with it the head of a hapless teenager. Screenwriter Robert Rodat and director Roland Emmerich have created as honest a vision of war as one can imagine—its wild mix of horror, stupidity, and grandeur—at least in the early scenes. The film’s impressive attention to period detail is more than merely picturesque. Take Emmerich’s decision to illuminate his interiors with 18th-century candlelight. This enables him to present Mel Gibson’s character, Benjamin Martin, as a middle-aged man emerging from the shadows of his troubled, warrior youth. When he comes upon his son trying on the uniform he himself wore in the French and Indian Wars, he watches, unnoticed, from the darkened hallway. Martin’s expression is barely visible as the boy admires his reflection in a mirror. His shadowed presence, however, eloquently conveys his disapproval of his son’s military enthusiasm. This simple composition of shade and light creates an intensely disquieting moment. It’s one of many similarly arresting scenes.

Martin is a fictional character loosely based on the historical Francis Marion, known as the “Swamp Fox” for his uncanny ability to carry out deadly sorties on the Redcoats and then fade into the Carolina swamps. According to some biographers, however, this hero was less than virtuous: He supposedly hunted Indians for sport and took his pleasure with slave women (with or without their consent). Emmerich has chosen to scrub away some of this grime. His Martin is more chastened than vicious, as the film’s opening voice-over reveals: “I have long feared my sins would come back to haunt me.” Much later, while explaining to his son his distaste for war, he confesses these sins. As a soldier in the French and Indian Wars, he participated in various atrocities, often while drunk. On one occasion, he and his men caught up with some Indians who were known to have slaughtered colonial women and children. To pay them back, Martin had them butchered alive as slowly as possible; he can still hear their screams, he tells his son. This is why he is reluctant to join the continental army in its battle against the British. As a widower with seven children, he has decided it’s best to tend to one’s own garden in a world always on the edge of savagery. Moreover, he’s not even sure he’s sympathetic to the revolutionary cause. “Why should I trade a tyrant 3,000 miles away for 3,000 tyrants one mile away?” he asks, reasonably enough.

But his hand is forced when British troops invade his estate. At first, Martin does all he can to placate them, but when they discover that one of his sons is a continental soldier, their sadistic Colonel Tavington orders the boy to be hanged. As Martin begs for the boy’s life, one of his other sons rushes to his brother’s aid, and Tavington shoots the 14-year-old dead. These opening scenes make for compelling and instructive melodrama: A man dedicated to peace finds he has no choice but to take up arms against tyrannical outrage. This Martin does in guerrilla fashion, tracking down the detail of redcoats whom Tavington has ordered to carry out the hanging. He brings two of his younger sons, one nine, the other 11, equipping each with rifles. He and his boys ambush the detail, killing them all and rescuing his oldest child. In the process, however, Martin’s youthful bloodlust is unleashed again. In a profoundly unsettling scene, he catches up with the last soldier alive. Although the man has been badly wounded and is no longer a threat, Martin lays into him with his hatchet, butchering him before his sons’ unbelieving eyes. He emerges bathed in blood from head to toe, baptized in vengeance and hate once more. As understandable as his rage is, it’s still terrifying to behold.

At this point, the film seems promisingly complicated. It opens the door on some issues we all need to keep in mind as citizens who may be called upon to defend ourselves, whether individually or collectively. The first half of the film acknowledges the legitimacy of violent means in extreme cases without glossing the moral ambiguities inherent in such means. In fighting our enemies, how do we prevent ourselves from mirroring what’s worst in them? Murdering others is rarely a morally unequivocal matter.

Instead of exploring these complications, however, the film settles into a shallow revenge drama. Tavington becomes the monstrous villain and Martin, despite his sullied past, the saintly hero. By the movie’s end, we might as well be watching a Hopalong Cassidy episode. On a battlefield of thousands, Martin and Tavington unerringly locate each other for a final showdown. Although the chaos of war howls about their ears—blizzards of musket shot, exploding cannonballs, flailing horses—they somehow find a clearing in which to fight in exquisitely choreographed slow motion. This heroic hogwash didn’t play well in Mission: Impossible 2; here, in a story that pretends to be historically based and psychologically nuanced, it’s embarrassing.

Another issue raised and disappointingly dropped is Tavington’s background. His soul has been curdled by the British class system. Born into the aristocracy, he nevertheless finds himself without social position: His profligate father exhausted the family fortune. He has come to the colonies, not out of loyalty to England, but to replace his lost fortune. His twisted mind and ruthless methods reflect his embittered past. To restore his social status, he will stop at nothing, even the burning of a churchful of trapped colonists. (Here, as elsewhere, the film flouts history. Tavington’s general, Cornwallis—perfectly played by consummate character actor Tom Wilkinson—would have certainly clapped him in irons for committing such an atrocity. After all, the British were at war with their own colonials, many of whom had no interest in separating from the mother country.)

Tavington’s warped character is one of several traces of what seems to have been a far more interesting narrative in the original script than the one that made it to the screen. Martin and Tavington are curiously alike: Both arc capable of enormous violence. Martin, however, has chosen to tame his aggressive instincts; Tavington has not. If Tavington has been morally stunted by a hierarchical culture that stymies his ambition at every turn, are we then to infer that Martin has been humanized by a society that has allowed him to rise in the world through his own efforts, acquiring property, a loving wife, and seven devoted children? If this inverted mirroring was the script’s intention—and I’m guessing—then it was undermined in favor of celebrating Gibson as the man who singlehandedly won our independence. Thank you, Mel.

In the end, The Patriot disappoints by doing so much well and then betraying its own best instincts. Still, despite its missed opportunities and comic-book ending, it moves you with its faithfulness to the look and feel of 18th-century America.