Synopsis – The Coast Guard makes a daring rescue attempt off the coast of Cape Cod after a pair of oil tankers are destroyed during a blizzard in 1952.
My Take – If you have seen the trailers you know exactly what you are walking into – a big budget Disney film around a larger than life story against-all-odds rescue attempt of the crew of the Pendleton tanker, which has split in two, by a four man crew of the Coast Guard in Chatham, MA. Don’t ask me how the Pendleton’s remaining half tanker doesn’t sink! I think it has something to do with the boat’s balancing tanks, but in the end it doesn’t matter, as we are here to witness some of the wildest open sea disaster scenes you’ll ever see. In a sense, this reminds of “Titanic”, except that the action scenes are pumped up and on steroids. The rescue of the Pendleton on Feb. 18, 1952, is considered one of the most legendary Coast Guard exploits ever. The servicemen all received medals for their heroism. And the real Bernie Webber was an inspiring story away from the ocean, too: He and Miriam actually got married in 1950—about a year-and-a-half before the Pendleton rescue—and they stayed married for nearly 59 years until Webber’s death in 2009. With that sort of source material to work with, this film feels like an old-fashioned adventure yarn that wants to inspire as much as thrill. It’s a feel-good story that makes for a pretty good movie—solid if not stellar. The film was surely a film made for two kinds of people: those who love movies set on the ocean, and those who are fans of strict procedure. The aggrandizing and melodramatic delivery of the film will surely put some viewers off, but there’s no denying that the period piece, dramatic recounting of the actual film is pulled off with elegance and grace. One of cinema’s greatest abilities is the power to transport us to different times and places, and while that is successfully captured here (whether it be with 1950s wardrobes or vehicles), it is the personality of the characters that remind us of a time when heroes didn’t complain about the dangers of the job they signed up for, but instead decided to go above and beyond what was expected. The story follows Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), a meek crewman at the Coast Guard of Chatham, Massachusetts, who meets and falls in love with Miriam (Holliday Grainger), and soon gets engaged to her. On the day that Bernie plans to officially notify his commanding officer (Eric Bana) that he’s getting married, he gets sent out into a storm to rescue about three dozen merchant mariners whose ship was one of two disabled in this especially severe winter storm.
The ship in question is the oil tanker, SS Pendleton. Due to a series of unfortunate events, Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), the Pendleton’s engineer, ends up leading the efforts of the crew in trying to notify someone of the ship’s location and keeping it afloat long enough for the men to be rescued. Ray has to contend with the ship’s greatly diminished capabilities, the rising water inside the ship and the members of the crew who strongly disagree on the best course of action. Fortunately, Ray has on his side Seaman Wallace Quirey (John Ortiz), the ship’s jovial and hulking cook (Abraham Benrubi) and an old salt named Frank Fauteux (Graham McTavish), but their loyalty only helps so much – especially in this weather! As the men on the Pendleton are fighting for survival, Bernie is fighting to get to them in time, and Miriam is doing what she can from the shore. Bernie can only find three other men to accompany him on what some openly call “a suicide mission”. Without telling Miriam that he’s going, he sets out with Seaman Richard Livesey (Ben Foster), Engineman Third Class Andrew Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner) and Seaman Ervin Maske (John Magaro) on a motorized lifeboat meant to hold no more than 12 men. How these four men in this small boat are going to make it through this storm over a major sand bar, find the Pendleton and rescue up to 41 men are the serious problems facing Boatswain Bernard Webber’s crew. But if you have read about the real incident, you know how it will end! Like many true stories, the film doesn’t have a lot of suspense—its own trailer trumpeted that it was based on “the most incredible rescue in Coast Guard history.” Director Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm) is wise enough to recognize that and simply make a film about the work of pulling off such a rescue, rather than try and ratchet up the drama. There are no waterworks on the shore from Miriam, who spends much of her time prodding Bernie’s commanding officer Daniel Cluff for information. Reference is made to a failed rescue attempt that haunts Bernie from the year before, but there are no tragic flashbacks or drawn-out arguments between him and his first mate over whether they’re making the right call. The boat is out there in the ocean, in the middle of a storm, which means they’ll be damned if they aren’t going to go and get it. Too few of Hollywood’s recent offerings can boast such a simple through line and know when to wrap it up, so while it might feel ridiculous to give the film credit for having a finite ending, it’s one quality that really makes the film stand out. As far as disaster movie goes, the film is atypical of the usual mold. It seems vanilla, slightly timid in the execution, which is still fine due to its production quality, but it does overturn it from more harrowing promises. There’s also quite a bit of spotlight given to the romance subplot, this feels unnecessary and in some events might break the pace. However, when it gets the steam rolling, it produces a delightful display of blue cold waves and breaking steel.
When it comes to a drama like this an engaging tale is required as the backbone of the movie. Fortunately the film manages to accomplish this by taking a straightforward plot and presenting it in fantastic way. The film follows the whole incident from three different perspectives that intertwine across the full two hours. This dynamic approach gave you the full picture and continued to spice things up as they illustrated the dangers faced on all fronts. As such, there is sure to be some part of the tale that audiences will enjoy that will bait your attention in this straightforward tale. Though the film takes its own sweet time to come alive, once the rescue mission starts, you can’t get your eyes off the screen. Any scene that is set on the stranded ship, as well as on the rescue boat are quite thrilling and sometimes, even scary. Particularly, those scenes when Bernie’s little boat crashes against those gigantic waves are deftly filmed, and might invoke the memories of another disaster drama, the very underrated George Clooney – Mark Wahlberg flick, The Perfect Storm. Even the concluding portions are touching and could bring in a tear or a smile to your face. Among the performances, the usually dashing Chris Pine is cast against type as the meek but daring crewman, and he delivers fine. His portrayal of Bernie Webber was a nice balance between bravery and hesitation as he tackles the challenges before him. While his accent is funny to hear at first, it eventually grows on you and adds some endearment to the character. Holliday Grainger‘s portrayal of Miriam was okay, a nice portrayal of a strong, brave woman whose verbal and non-verbal acting brought the courageous nature of this woman to life. However, the trailers made her out to be more involved with the process and I was disappointed with her limited interactions in the film. But best actor in this film goes to Casey Affleck, who played the deepest role of the bunch as the chief engineer. The emotions to which he had to balance were challenging, but I feel Affleck kept the character grounded and realistic on all fronts, thereby making his feats all the more impressive. Ben Foster, Eric Bana, Kyle Gallner & Josh Stewart provide good support. Perhaps the strongest quality of the movie though is the cinematic magic and special effects that brought the true suspense. Th film computer animation is on point, with the deadly snow storm brought to life with high-definition details and incredible sound editing. I was brought into the storm, feeling the misery and the despair brought to our sailors as the fury of the sea was unleashed. In the belly of the tanker, the chaos of sinking ship was brilliantly recreated that didn’t involve the over use of pyrotechnics and explosions. Special effects aside the cinematography was a key aspect in bringing the emotions to the scenes. On the whole, ‘The Finest Hours’ is a good old fashioned compelling disaster drama which never fails to entertain you! Give it a watch!
Director – Craig Gillespie
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 117 minutes