With super hero films getting bigger, but not necessarily better, it is nice to step out of the Marvel-verse and become immersed in a true story of true heroics. The hero wears a uniform that is far from spiffy and when he gets wet and cold, he doesn’t look dapper but damper. “The Finest Hours” is an old-fashioned tale about a disaster and a humble hero who also will get the girl.
If you really want to go in totally uninformed, stop reading here. Based on the Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman book, “The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue,” you know that there were survivors, but not necessarily who and how.
The movie begins the year before the rescue. Boatswains Mate First Class Bernard Webber (Chris Pine) is out of uniform and on a double date with his best friend and fellow coast guard Mel Gouthro (Beau Knapp). Bernard is at a diner for the first time meeting face-to-face with the woman he has been talking to over the phone for weeks, Miriam (Holliday Grainger). According to the production notes, Miriam was a telephone operator and listened in on one of his calls “where he politely cancelled a date due to a flat tire.” She contacted him and they “dated” by telephone. In the movie, they finally meet and things go well except that Miriam is afraid of the water and Bernie has two burdens that makes him reluctant to fully commit to Miriam, even when she asks him to marry her at a dance in February 1952. He agrees, but tells her he must ask his supervisor. She already has a date in mind, April 16, 1952.
Just a year before, Webber had led a rescue attempt for a fishing boat, the William J. Landry. The Bedford, Massachusetts boat was trapped at sea during a major storm. Three attempts were made to rescue the fishermen, but the boat was destroyed and the bodies of the fishermen lost at sea and never found. This time, two large oil tankers are split in two and sinking. The station chief, Warren Cluff, (Eric Bana) a non-local, sends his more-experienced men to assist the SS Fort Mercer, but when he realizes that it is not one, but two ships sinking, he sends a four-man crew of Webber, Engine Third Class Andrew Fitzgerald (Kyle Galiner), Seaman Richard Livesay (Ben Foster) and Seaman Ervin Maske (John Magaro) to the aid of the SS Pendleton. It is essentially a suicide mission because the other crew determined it was impossible to cross Chatham Bar during the storm and have gone around it. Webber only can say, “You gotta go out, but they don’t say you gotta come back in.” The boat seems small compared to the waves they must navigate over and sometimes under. Their Coast Guard Motor Lifeboat DG 36500 is only meant to carry a total of 12 men, including the four-man crew.
The Fort Mercer was able to get out a distress call, however, the Pendleton did not. Only a visual confirmation brings that information to the Chatham-based Coast Guard station. The ship’s bow sank before a distress call could be made, but along with the radio room, all of the officers aboard the SS Pendleton were on that side. On the Pendleton stern half, without any officers, a mid-level crew member, Raymond Sybert (Casey Affleck), must suddenly become a leader. Like the shy, self-effacing by-the-book Webber, he isn’t your typical hero. Sybert isn’t well-liked by the men. He’s not outspoken, but he is smart and thoughtful. He realizes that the wooden lifeboats would be doomed in these rough seas. Instead, he proposes a way of stalling the sinking of their half of the ship by running it into a shoal and the 33 survivors work together despite disagreements.
As Webber, Pine convincingly loses the swagger and brash charm that has gotten him through the role of James T. Kirk in the “Star Trek” re-boot series as well as the singing Prince in the musical “Into the Woods.” His Webber is a conscientious man, almost afraid to vary from the rules. Yet he wins over his greatest doubter, Livesay.
Grainger’s Miriam is a woman determined to be married, but not really sure of what being the wife of a Coast Guard means and the uncertainty that plagues the families of all the seamen, fishermen and Coast Guards.
The screenplay by Eric Johnson, Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy gets us to a happy ending although not all of the crew are saved. Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography gives us the idea of motion, but doesn’t have the kind of shaky cam swirling that will induce motion sickness (e.g. “The Blair Witch Project”). The scenes, however, are threatening enough to qualify it for a PG-13 rating and make one think twice about working at sea or even taking a cruise.
Director Craig Gillespie (“Million Dollar Arm”) contrasts the warm social comfort of the 1950s on land with the frighteningly poor technology that allowed the seams of two oil tankers to burst and set two different ships adrift as imperfect halves of a tragic puzzle. Even the snowy night with people driving in cars doesn’t seem more threatening than “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” The rescue by Webber’s crew was so spectacular that it overshadowed the other Coast Guard rescue efforts that day. All four men were awarded the Coast Guard’s Gold Lifesaving Medal.
Under the sunny skies of Southern California, it is easy to view the wintry weather and feel safe and secure that the problems one will face on the freeway have little to do with the weather. It’s hard to say if people will want to travel through the blizzard of 2016 in other areas to see this wintry tale about the blizzard of 1952, but it is a solid, old-fashioned movie about men rising to extraordinary challenges. According to the film, this incident is still considered the greatest small-boat rescue in Coast Guard history. “The Finest Hours” opens today, Jan. 29, 2016 nationwide.