Film Review: 'The Finest Hours'
The epic, yet subtle, nuanced story about the 1952 real-life Coast Guard rescue of the SS Pendleton oil tanker will draw you in calmly, only to toss you directly into the middle of a massive nor’easter storm, leaving you lost at sea alongside the film’s courageous characters for nearly two hours.
But believe me when I tell you that you’ll be glad you stuck with it, because “The Finest Hours” saves the best for last.
Directed by Craig Gillespie (“Million Dollar Arm,” “Lars and the Real Girl”), the new Disney film (in theaters Jan. 29) is led by an all-star cast, including Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Holliday Grainger, John Ortiz and Eric Bana. It’s centered around the retelling of the incredible true story of what has been called “the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”
“You can’t see what’s underneath”
The film opens with the sound of Sinatra playing on the car radio. It’s Nov. 1951, and it’s already snowing, though this is truly the calm before the storm. Petty Officer First Class Bernard “Bernie” Webber (Pine) is about to meet his possible future wife, Miriam (Grainger) for the very first time in person, and he’s a bit nervous. Luckily, he has his best buddy with him -- a fellow Coast Guard man -- to give him the boost of confidence he needs to jump (walk) in.
I can relate, and maybe you can, too. New relationships can be scary, and the film uses the metaphor of the small boat rescue in the middle of the storm to show the incredible dichotomy of vulnerability and unwavering bravery in the face of the unknown. It makes for a crazy ride that resonates powerfully, whether you’re measuring the feat in physical, emotional or metaphorical terms.
The scene where Bernie and Miriam meet for the first time is perfectly romantic without being too overdone. Pine and Grainger’s on-screen chemistry is instant and intense, which is important since most of their scenes are spent apart throughout the rest of the film. I longed for them to end up together, which kept me connected when I drifted in and out of what was happening at sea (full disclosure: I also found myself longing for the dialogue-rich “Steve Jobs” at times, for this is the antithesis of that film).
But Pine reportedly appreciated the story’s simplicity and was drawn to the character of Bernie Webber, the captain of the CG36500 lifeboat, an underdog who becomes a hero.
“Bernie is sweet and quite gentle and is a man who hasn’t really found his voice yet. He grew up in a family of very strong men who went into battle and got their badges, and Bernie, having been too young to go to war, feels that he should have been there,” said Pine in a studio interview. “I like Bernie because he’s not encumbered by any cynicism or irony and he’s not slick and sharp…he’s not ‘big city.’ He’s a man from a different time.”
“In the Coast Guard they say you have to go out…they don’t say you have to come back in.”
As wonderful as the love story is, the film’s central conflict focuses on showing the epic scale of the small boat rescue of the SS Pendleton, a 500-foot oil tanker bound for Boston that split in half after being struck by the massive storm on Feb. 18, 1952, leaving the crew stranded at sea with only hours to live and a tiny sliver of hope they’d be found in time.
Academy Award and Golden Globe nominee Casey Affleck (“Interstellar,” “Oceans 13”), plays chief engineer Raymond Sybert, the film’s antihero aboard the Pendleton who suddenly gets thrust into a position of authority because of the ship’s circumstances.
“The story really spoke to me about heroism and leadership,” said Affleck in an interview with the studio. “These men were in a terrifying situation, yet they figured out a way to work together, ultimately bringing out the best in one another to accomplish the unthinkable.”
Shortly after the tanker splits, the crew aboard the Pendleton is seen praying, and there’s a line from one of the frustrated crewmembers that seemed to be plucked from our current national conversation about gun control, ISIS and mass shootings: “praying is great, but why don’t we do something?” The giant tanker has been divided, and so, too, have the ranks. They’re left with no hydraulics, no power and no radio, but Sybert (Affleck) has a plan. They’ll just have to work together, or no one gets out alive.
Back at the Coast Guard station in Chatham, Mass., Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana), the recently appointed station chief, orders coxswain Bernie Webber to quickly assemble a crew and take out a small, 36-foot wooden lifeboat to look for survivors from the Pendleton. Webber and three men set off on what most considered to be a “suicide mission,” according to official reports.
The sequences that follow take full advantage of the immersive capabilities of advanced 3D technology (the film is presented in Digital 3D™, Real D 3D and IMAX® 3D). We’re transported into the eye of the storm, drowning in the noise of the giant, menacing waves crashing all around us and hurricane-like winds swirling above us. There are spectacular underwater shots of the sinking tanker and POV shots that show just how poor the visibility and conditions are. It’s just plain dizzying at times.
“You wanna turn back around now?”
“When you’re in the midst of a major storm like the one in this story, you can get some huge waves coming in, which makes it almost impossible for a small boat to get through,” Gillespie told the studio. “The boats were built with very heavy keels on them, but in addition to the powerful surf there are all kinds of currents and it becomes a big whirlpool of a mess.”
Sometimes I felt like I might not make it through to the end. But the magnificent original score from Carter Burwell (“Carol”; “Anomalisa”; “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 and 2”) kept me hooked even when I felt like I was out of breath, either from the non-stop action sequences or because I started to panic thinking I, too, was actually stuck under water for a moment or two. The notes gently reminded me when to worry, and when to relax, even if the former seemed to take precedent most of the time.
Miriam, played by British actress Holliday Grainger (“Cinderella,” “Bonnie & Clyde”) is the proverbial anchor for both Bernie and for the film itself. She’s the “I’ll-do-and-say-as-I-please-thank-you” fiancée of Bernie Webber who “doesn’t do what the other girls do” (read: she refuses to stay silent and/or polite).
In the end, I was so glad I stuck with Bernie and Miriam, and with the rescue mission. Without even a compass, it seemed like the rescue crew (and the film) might not find its way back to shore, and Sybert and Webber both play on the notion of “luck” rather than preparation or bravery as the reason they’re ultimately able to overcome.
They may call it luck, but we should call it unbelievable superhuman courage. The film’s story reminds us of the incredible selflessness men and women in service positions of all different kinds -- doctors, nurses, nonprofit and humanitarian workers, journalists in conflict zones, and of course, members of the military -- show every single day on the job, often without any recognition at all. We commend you, we appreciate you, and we support you.
Andrew J. Fitzgerald, the only surviving member of the Coast Guard crew that rescued the men aboard the Pendleton that fateful night, got to visit the set and talk with the actors and crew during filming.
“I’ve never forgotten it,” Fitzgerald told the Boston Globe in 2014 while on the set for the film. “I can remember it like it was yesterday.” The crew received the rare Gold Lifesaving Medal, which is the service’s highest honor for heroism during a rescue operation.
“Some people still look at the Pendleton rescue as a suicide mission, but I never saw it like that,” Fitzgerald, now 84, said in an interview with the studio. “Like we used to say back then, ‘You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.’ Our job was to save people and that’s what we did.”
“The Finest Hours” opens on Jan. 29. Watch the trailer below.