In February of 1952, members of the United States Coast Guard performed what has since been regarded as one of the most famous rescue missions in the organization’s history. In the midst of a particularly harsh ‘Nor’easter’ storm that had hit the East Coast, a four-man crew from the Coast Guard station in Chatham, Massachusetts braved the storm and the harsh waters of the Atlantic in order to help the crew of the SS Pendleton, a T2 tanker that had broken in half about 20 miles or so off of the Chatham coast. In fact, it was the second of two T2 tankers that suffered the same exact fate on the very same day, the other being the SS Fort Mercer. Ultimately, though, it was the Pendleton rescue that became known as the most famous small boat rescue in U.S. Coast Guard history and the story of this daring rescue mission is brought to life on the big-screen in Disney’s ‘The Finest Hours’, which is primarily based off of the book of the same name by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman that chronicled the events of that day. ‘The Finest Hours’ is driven by some particularly stand-out performances from its two main leads, Chris Pine and Casey Affleck, and while the film is admittedly a bit straight-forward when it comes to its proceedings, it’s still a fittingly honorable and suitably thrilling take on this fascinating true story of the heroism of four men in some of the harshest conditions imaginable.
The leader of the four-man crew was Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernard ‘Bernie’ Webber (Chris Pine), who at that time was courting a local girl from the neighborhood named Miriam (Holliday Grainger) who worked as a telephone operator. But on February 18, 1952, T2 tanker SS Fort Mercer ends up getting split in half by the impending winter storm that is set to hit the Cape Cod area. And as fate would have it, another T2 tanker nearby, the SS Pendleton, breaks in half as well. But unlike the SS Fort Mercer, the SS Pendleton was unable to make a distress call for help due to a loss of radio capabilities as a result of the breakage. While another team heads out to help the crew of the SS Fort Mercer, Chatham station commander Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana) dispatches Bernie to help the Pendleton. Despite the severe risks that come from the storm and the fact that they would have to go over the extremely dangerous Chatham Bar to reach them, Bernie and his crew; Seaman Richard Livesey (Ben Foster), Engineman Third Class Andrew Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner), and Seaman Ervin Maske (John Magaro), head out on Lifeboat CG-36500 to help the crew of the SS Pendleton. Meanwhile, on the Pendleton, Chief Engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) takes control of the crew, due to the fact that the Captain of the Pendleton was lost because he was on the other half of the ship, in order to keep the ship afloat as long as they possibly can in the hopes that they are rescued before the ship sinks.
‘The Finest Hours’ can be a bit straight-forward at times in terms of its plot. Then again, that’s sort of expected given that it’s a true story and you may or may not be generally aware of what happened and how it all ended going into it. But even with that in mind, the film is full of some genuinely thrilling moments as both Bernie and his crew and the crew of the SS Pendleton, as led by Ray Sybert, try to stay alive in some of the harshest conditions imaginable while out on the open sea. Those sequences set at sea, including the sequence where Bernie’s crew traverses over the aforementioned Chatham Bar, a sand bar that was capable of running ships aground even in lesser conditions compared to the storm that they had to go through that day, are definitely the major highlights of the film. They convey the right amount of tension and suspense and are benefitted by some solid visual effects work. However, there are some who have argued that the film doesn’t really do enough to convey the real emotional core of the story and, as a result, feels a bit too ‘workmanlike’ at times. But overall I think that the film did do a fine enough job in regards to showcasing the valor of its heroes simply by way of the remarkable nature of the situation that they’re put through.
In regards to the film’s cast, the biggest standouts are its two main leads, Chris Pine as Bernie Webber and Casey Affleck as Ray Sybert. As Webber, Pine once again shows off his strong charisma that was also present in many of his other performances like James T. Kirk in the ‘Star Trek’ films or as Cinderella’s Prince in ‘Into The Woods’, while also doing a great job of getting across Webber’s audacity and courage in the face of danger. As Sybert, Affleck is also terrific in the role of the one man who, despite the fact that a lot of the crew didn’t like him very much, took charge of them so that they could survive. The two are backed up by a solid supporting cast that includes, among others, Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner, and John Magaro as the other members of Bernie’s crew and Eric Bana as Webber’s commanding officer Cluff. Pine also has really solid chemistry with the film’s main female lead Holliday Grainger, resulting in some very charming and sweet romantic moments between them. However, Grainger ends up being rather underused in the role of Bernie’s girlfriend Miriam. While the trailer may have implied that she would have a fairly substantial role in the film, as primarily evident in the sequence in the trailer where she confronts Cluff over sending Bernie and his team out into the storm on what very much seems to be a ‘suicide mission’, that’s really all that she gets to do in this film. In other words, she’s basically stuck in a ‘50’s era housewife’ role. Though from what I hear, at the very least this is more than what her character actually did in real-life. In reality, Miriam was stuck at home with the flu while all of this was going on.
The consensus on Rotten Tomatoes notes that this film is ‘old-fashioned to a fault’ and I will say that this is a pretty accurate description of the film. For some, this may be just a bit too ‘old-fashioned’ for their taste. But as traditional as it may get from time to time, it’s still a very solid and exciting adventure that highlights one of the most fascinating rescue missions in U.S. Coast Guard history. To truly put this moment into perspective for you folks, Webber and his crew had to rescue a 33-man crew commandeering a 35-foot boat that could only hold 12 in the midst of an extremely harsh winter storm. And while some may argue the film is a bit too subdued in regards to how it handles its true story, overall I’d say that the film does do a fine job in conveying the heroism of its real-life subjects. And to top it all off, the film has a solid cast buoyed (no pun intended) by leads Chris Pine and Casey Affleck and some genuinely tense action sequences backed by solid visual effects. In short, it’s a neat little look into a fascinating true story that took place in the New England area. Being a local New Englander myself, I’ll admit that I’m always fascinated by true stories like this that took place in this area, with other notable examples being ‘Black Mass’ and, to some extent, ‘The Social Network’. ‘The Finest Hours’ is the latest of these films and overall I say that it’s very much worth checking out for those looking for a good-old fashioned rescue drama.