How the 'Storm' plays in Yankee harbor town

THE image is indelible: a tiny fishing boat clinging to a vertical-cresting wave the size of the Grand Canyon.

But for the residents of this fishing community north of Boston, "The Perfect Storm" is more than a movie. It is part of their history.

More than 10,000 Gloucester fishermen have died since its founding in 1623, and these all-too-common tragedies bond a hardy people together. This is, perhaps, the reason the bulk of residents have embraced the film. They see it as a celebration of the bravery of the industry and a chance for recognition.

But others say they don't need a movie to remember the storm that claimed six members of their community nine years ago. On a Gloucester fishing dock, Paul Collins paces agitatedly among pieces of ice. His best friend was Billy Tyne, captain of the Andrea Gail, the boat that perished in the worst storm of the 20th century, and Mr. Collins says he has no plans to watch George Clooney portray his friend on the big screen. Watching the movie would be too painful for him, Collins says, and he is unhappy with the artistic license the filmmakers took, creating a romantic subplot and a rivalry between two of the fishermen.

As the movie opens today, Gloucester is awash in mixed emotions. While many locals welcome the Hollywood pizazz and the minted coins that the blockbuster brings, others worry about its impact on their community.

And, as with any film bearing the tag "based on a true story," the film has raised questions about the ethics of making a profit by depicting a tragedy.

"This question is going to come up more and more as the appetite for mainstream entertainment for these ... kinds of stories is spiraling faster and faster," says Robert Thompson, director of the center for the study of popular television at Syracuse University in New York. "Waiting for nine years actually seems quite a calm, restrained act compared to the Amy Fisher story. I am bothered by people who say, 'There ought to be rule that you have to wait 25 years until you can make a movie about a tragedy.' If there was a rule, it ought to be that you don't do it in bad taste, ever."

That's something Gloucester officials believe the makers of "The Perfect Storm" strove to avoid. "[Director] Wolfgang Peterson came into my office and said, 'I want you to understand that this is going to be respectful, it's going to be sensitive, it's not going to be about exploitation of the way of life, of the people, or of the heritage," says Gloucester Mayor Bruce Tobey.

"My gut feeling is that [the filmmakers] are rather moved by Gloucester, its history, its traditions," says Joseph Garland, a local historian and friend of Sebastian Junger, author of the 1997 bestseller that inspired the movie. "My sense is that they have done their best to try to be true to that."

Deep oceanic roots

Few towns covet their reputation as jealously as this, the oldest fishing port in the United States, which lies at the end of a peninsula that noses out from the New England coastline just north of Boston.

And the case of Gloucester indicates that Hollywood may be trying to shed its reputation for sweeping in and out of towns with the arrogance of Rome's imperial conquerors.

Some of the movie's stars make it clear they don't regard this film as just another gig.

"This movie is a tribute to this town, these people, and to fishermen, past, present and future," says actor Mark Wahlberg, who hails from Massachusetts. "I've never been involved in something so close and so important to me."

"We were very responsible to the families [of the deceased men]. We didn't make the movie as 'The Old Man and the Sea,' and we didn't make bad guys out of the men who do a very heroic task," says Mr. Clooney, huddling in closely so as to be audible above the shrieks of hysterical fans who have gathered outside the premire of "The Perfect Storm" in Danvers, Mass. Proceeds from the event are going to the families of the lost fishermen.

Cathy Sullivan and Mary Anne Shatford, who both lost brothers on the Andrea Gail, are walking the red carpet like Oscar veterans.

"They're portraying my brother, but I know it won't be his character. I'm OK with that," Ms. Sullivan says. Her other brother is not: He was so distressed by the movie that he boycotted the premiere.

Ms. Shatford's reaction was one of pride: "After seeing the movie, I was so proud to be Bobby Shatford's sister and to be from the city of Gloucester."

Not everyone in Gloucester is as sanguine.

Rose Ciulla, a manager at Gloucester's Seafood Display Auction, liked the movie, but is one of many people voicing a concern that the film may give the impression that fishermen "live inside a bar."

Another fisherman, who asked not to be identified, said he doesn't want his wife or child to see "The Perfect Storm," because he doesn't want them to worry when he's away at sea for days at a time.

In conversation, locals downplay their interest in the Hollywood hoopla that has encamped in their community. "They do their job - acting - and we do our job - fishing," says Mrs. Ciulla.

But, secretly, the residents are buzzing as much as the media who've flowed in and out of press junket tents in recent weekends.

You can hear it in the rapid-fire conversations of blue T-shirted fishermen sitting amid the tourists at the lunch benches of Captain Carlo's Fish Market and Restaurant. Or on the docks, where limp fish, wide-eyed and mouths agape, are slapped onto crates of ice by workers in blue overalls and caps. Everyone wants to know who has tickets for the community's first screening.

Fishing culture

Using the word "community" to describe Gloucester is no euphemism.

It goes beyond the familiarity between people passing one another on the streets. People's ties here all stem back to the fishing industry that was once the town's sole raison d'tre, before the tourist trade and dotcoms netted much of the town's marine workforce, who had been laid off by fishing regulations.

"The Perfect Storm" posters can be found on shop premises everywhere in Gloucester, while souvenirs range from keychains to "the perfect ring," available from a local jewelry store.

Others, however, have qualms about making money off the phenomenon. Jim Tarantino, a tanned and muscular factory worker at Gorton's fish, is in his third week of pedaling tourists around on a red bicycle-rickshaw.

"People keep telling me I should devise a Perfect Storm tour," says Mr. Tarantino, who knew a crew member of the Andrea Gail.

"I'm not into that idea. I'm into showing people Gloucester."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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