In October 1991, the commercial fishing boat Andrea Gail returns to port in Gloucester, Massachusetts, with a poor catch. Desperate for money, Captain Billy Tyne (Clooney) convinces the Andrea Gail crew to join him for one more late season fishing expedition. The crew heads out past their usual fishing grounds in the Grand Banks, leaving a developing thunderstorm behind them. Initially unsuccessful, they head to the Flemish Cap, where their luck greatly improves. At the height of their fishing the ice machine breaks; the only way to sell their catch before it spoils is to hurry back to shore. After debating whether to sail through the building storm or to wait it out, the crew decides to risk the storm. However, between the Andrea Gail and Gloucester is a confluence of two powerful weather fronts and a hurricane, which the Andrea Gail crew underestimates.
After repeated warnings from other ships, Andrea Gail loses her antenna, forcing Captain Linda Greenlaw (Mastrantonio) of sister ship Hannah Boden to call in a Mayday. A New York Air National Guard HH-60 Pave Hawk rescue helicopter responds, but after failing to perform a midair refueling with an HC-130 Hercules, the helicopter crew ditch their aircraft. All but one of the Air National Guard crew members are rescued by a Coast Guard vessel, the USCGC Tamaroa.
After Andrea Gail endures various problems, the crew struggles to sail through pounding waves and shrieking winds, while friends and family worry and wait for a ship that never comes home. The vessel encounters an enormous rogue wave. They attempt to drive the boat over the wave but it crests before it can get to the top and is overturned; Billy elects to go down with his ship, the rest of the crew are trapped inside and only one manages to get out. He surfaces and watches as the Andrea Gail rights itself before sinking stern-first into the Atlantic. The rapidly rising swell carries the man away.
There are no survivors; Linda reads the eulogy at the memorial service, followed by her remembering Billy's voice soliloquising about what it means to be a swordboat captain.George Clooney as Frank William "Billy" Tyne, Jr., captain of the Andrea Gail, a swordfishing boat. Billy is a divorced father of two daughters, who is determined to undertake one last fishing trip before the end of the season to make up for a recent string of poor catches.
Mark Wahlberg as Robert "Bobby" Shatford, the least experienced of the crew of the Andrea Gail. Bobby is the son of Ethel Shatford, the owner of the Crow's Nest, and boyfriend to Chris Cotter. He enjoys commercial fishing, but his deepening relationship with Chris (coupled with her reluctance to let him sail again) creates conflict within himself and between the couple. Yet, he is compelled by the potential to earn more money at sea than he could make with a job on shore to sign on for one last trip.
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Linda Greenlaw, the captain of the Hannah Boden. Linda and Billy both captain ships for the same owner and maintain a friendly rivalry. She is concerned about Billy and his crew's going out in what she considers dangerous weather. Linda is the last to speak to the Andrea Gail.
Diane Lane as Christina "Chris" Cotter, girlfriend of Bobby Shatford. She does not want Bobby to go on the trip because of a bad feeling she has about it. She spends her time during the last fishing trip decorating an apartment she has rented as a surprise for Bobby to symbolize her commitment to him.
John C. Reilly as Dale "Murph" Murphy, crewmember on the Andrea Gail. Murph is a veteran fisherman who is divorced with a son with whom he's very involved. Murph has a rocky relationship with crewmember David "Sully" Sullivan that is eventually resolved during the trip.
William Fichtner as David "Sully" Sullivan, crewmember on the Andrea Gail. He signed on for the trip at the last minute when another fisherman suddenly backed out. Sully and Murph initially have an antagonistic relationship that is fueled in part by Sully's past involvement with Murph's ex-wife, although the details are not made clear in the film. The relationship is eventually resolved during the trip.
Michael Ironside as Bob Brown, owner of the Andrea Gail and the Hannah Boden. Although Brown seems to harbor a deep-seated recognition of Tyne's skills at catching fish, he nevertheless pressures Tyne over the latter's recent inability to bring in larger hauls, resulting in an uneasy relationship between the two.
Bob Gunton as Alexander McAnally III, owner of the Mistral, a yacht caught in the storm.
Karen Allen as Melissa Brown, crewmember on the Mistral.
Cherry Jones as Edie Bailey, crewmember on the Mistral.
Allen Payne as Alfred Pierre, one of the crew of the Andrea Gail.
John Hawkes as Michael "Bugsy" Moran, a member of the Andrea Gail crew. Bugsy's somewhat comic inability to connect with women appears to change on the eve of the trip, when he meets a divorced mother at the Crow's Nest, who later comes to the dock to see him off. They hint at the prospect of a budding relationship that fatefully never materializes.
Janet Wright as Ethel Shatford, Bobby's mother.
Christopher McDonald as Todd Gross, a Boston meteorologist working for the WNEV-TV (the present day WHDH-TV).
Dash Mihok as Sergeant Jeremy Mitchell, a crewmember on the New York Air National Guard rescue helicopter.
A ship similar to the Andrea Gail, the Lady Grace, was used during the filming of the movie. Most of the names used were not changed for the fictional film, but in response two lawsuits were later filed by certain families of the crew members. The film only claims to be "based on a true story", and differs in many ways from the book starting with the fictionalization of the material into a "story". The events shown in the film after the Andrea Gail's last radio contact are pure speculation, as the boat and the bodies of the crew were never found.
Contrary to the movie's storyline, Captain Linda Greenlaw says she did not place a distress call on behalf of the Andrea Gail. "Without a distress call (directly) from the imperiled vessel, the Coast Guard will not initiate a search until the vessel is five days overdue in port," Greenlaw said. The 1993 U.S. Coast Guard's investigative report said that the Andrea Gail was experiencing 30-foot waves and winds from anywhere from 50 to 80 knots (58 - 92 MPH) around the time of the last communication. The conditions, though threatening, were probably not unfamiliar to Tyne, who had been a successful fisherman for about a decade on other vessels, taking trips to the Grand Banks and fishing off Florida, the Carolinas, and elsewhere. In addition, Hurricane Grace (1991) was described by a weather forecaster as a category 5 storm in the movie, though it never achieved those wind speeds. In the movie, Tyne and his crew agreed to head into the dangerous storm in order to save their fish from spoiling. Greenlaw acknowledged that Tyne did mention having ice problems, but that was not unusual. "My one gripe about [the] movie was how Warner Brothers depicted Billy Tyne and his crew as making a very conscious decision to steam into a storm that they knew was dangerous," said Greenlaw. "That is not what happened. The Andrea Gail was three days into their steam home when the storm hit. Whatever happened to the Andrea Gail happened very quickly."
An Air National Guard helicopter was dispatched from Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base on Long Island, New York, but not in response to the Andrea Gail or Satori (Mistral in the movie). The helicopter departed mid-storm on a mission to help save a lone Japanese fisherman from a sinking sailboat 250 miles off the New Jersey coast. Unsuccessful and running low on fuel, the Air National Guard HH-60G helicopter was compelled to attempt a mid-flight refueling maneuver. The zero-visibility conditions thwarted their efforts, however, and lacking enough fuel to make the flight back to the Long Island base, the crew were forced to ditch the helicopter. After a heroic search operation by the Tamaroa, four of the HH-60's crew were picked up; one was never seen again. The Japanese yachtsman was later rescued by a Romanian cargo ship.
When asked about the portrayal of "Sully" in the movie, Cathy Sullivan Mustone, an older sister of David "Sully" Sullivan, said she was disappointed. "They made my brother's character out to be a hothead," she said. "I guess every movie needs a villain, but my brother was a funny guy with a loud laugh and a big smile. He had a lot of guts and he loved fishing." In fact, David's bravery and quick thinking made headlines on a different boat—the Harmony. One night during a winter fishing trip, the Harmony began taking on water while tied to another boat. The crew of the Harmony yelled for help, hoping to wake the nearby crew. No one woke, so David dove into the icy water, pulling himself on the ropes that tied the boats together. As a result of his bravery, the Harmony's crew was saved. Mustone said, "At least in the movie, they did represent my brother's bravery in a water rescue scene. He was a good man. And I just know he is at peace in heaven, safe with our Dad."
The crew members of Satori (renamed Mistral in the movie) were not rescued by an Air National Guard helicopter, but rather a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter. The helicopter was changed in the film after the Air National Guard had issues consulting with the movie producers. According to the owner's son, the Satori never made a 360° roll, although it had two knockdowns, during which it lay on its side for about 30 seconds. In response to requests by the crew, Captain Ray Leonard permitted the two crewmembers to make a position report over radio, during which they made an unauthorized Mayday call. One of those crewmembers reported that she was so convinced that she was going to die that she wrote her name down and put it into a plastic bag so that her body could be identified when it was finally found.
There is controversy over whether the Captain was drunk, as charged by the women in the book, with Leonard objecting to this characterization. Out of compassion for the expected loss of his boat, the Coast Guard did not test his blood alcohol levels at the time. The Coast Guard declared the voyage manifestly unsafe and ordered everyone off-board, including the unwilling skipper. The Coast Guard first tried to take them on board via an inflatable boat, but after it was damaged when trying to approach the Satori they sent a helicopter, which is a much riskier approach, as a rescue swimmer must jump into dangerous seas. The Coast Guard helicopter did not try to lower rescue gear onto the yacht (as shown in the movie, where it gets entangled with the mast), but rather asked the crew of the Satori to jump overboard to meet a rescue swimmer in the water. Leonard eventually complied with the request.
After the storm, Leonard searched for the "Satori", hoping to find her still afloat, but in spite of his attempts she was found a few days later washed ashore on a Maryland beach, a bag of personal belongings still on deck. Leonard paid for a 60-foot fishing vessel to drag her off the beach, helped by a channel dug by Park Rangers who had been guarding the boat. He continued to sail the boat until 2000, and she remained in use with a new owner as of May 2000.
The Perfect Storm received mixed reviews from critics, with a 47% approval rating on critic site Rotten Tomatoes with a consensus of, "While the special effects are well done and quite impressive, this film suffers a lack of any actual drama or characterization. The end result is a film that offers nifty eye-candy and nothing else."
The Perfect Storm was a huge box office success. On its opening weekend, the film debuted with $42 million ahead of Sony's The Patriot and eventually brought in over $182.6 million in the United States, and $146.1 million around the world to a total of $328.7 million worldwide.
The film was nominated for two Academy Awards, Best Visual Effects (Walt Conti, Stefen Fangmeier, John Frazier and Habib Zargarpour) and Best Sound (John T. Reitz, Gregg Rudloff, David E. Campbell and Keith A. Wester), but lost both to Gladiator.
After the film was released, the families of two crew members sued the film makers for the fictionalization of events which happened prior to the loss of the Andrea Gail. In 2005, the Florida Supreme Court ruled against the family of Captain Tyne by a 6–2 vote. Some unnamed families also sued the producers in federal district court, claiming that their names were used without their permission, and that facts were changed. The district court, which is also located in Florida, dismissed the case, as in their opinion the defendants' First Amendment right to freedom of speech barred the suit. The plaintiffs appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, which could not decide how to interpret the Florida law at issue and certified the question to the Florida Supreme Court. In the end, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the district court's interpretation of Florida law, and remanded the case to the 11th Circuit, which affirmed the prior decision to dismiss the case.