It’s a true story and it was known as The Pendleton Rescue. Back in ’52 during a severe storm, two commercial oil tankers off the New England coast broke in half. One was called the SS Fort Mercer, the other, the SS Pendleton. In the new and somewhat sanitized Disney version of the stunning rescue by the U.S. Coast Guard, The Finest Hours, the story concentrates on the events of the SS Pendleton. As in real life, in the film, the rescue of the men from one tanker overshadowed the rescue of the other.
When we first meet young Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernard Webber (Chris Pine) he’s about to go on a double date with a friend and he’s worried about the shirt he’s chosen to wear. As presented in the movie, Bernie seems somewhat timid and indecisive. The concern over the shirt is only one indication of the young man’s inability to make a firm decision, or, at least, believe in the one he’s made. As with the construct of any disaster themed movie, these introductory moments of his fussing over whether he’s wearing the right apparel or not may seem immaterial, but it’s a character trait that will later return, and it’ll return at a moment when making that right decision becomes a matter of life or death.
Bernie’s date that night turns out to be local, feisty lass Miriam (often credited in her native Britain as Holly Grainger, though here she’s billed as Holliday Grainger). Miriam can see that Bernie doesn’t always take the lead, which is why she’s the one that makes the marriage proposal, not Bernie. If she waited for Bernie to ask, it would never happen.
Now engaged, Bernie prepares for a future life together with Miriam while working for the Coast Guard. It’s during one dark, stormy night with devastating blizzard conditions in 1952 that Bernie’s life changed. Two tankers are split apart by the brutal storm off the coast. There’s no radio contact. The only way the Chatham, Massachusetts based U.S. Coast Guard knows that the tankers are out there is because of radar. “Get yourself a crew,” declares officer-in-charge Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana) to Bernie.
The indecisive Bernie bulks at the idea, but he does as ordered. “I’m gonna do my best to get out there,” Bernie states when all eyes are on him. “I don’t know if I will, but I’ll try.” With a crew of just three – four including Bernie – a surprisingly tiny looking 36-foot long motor lifeboat is dispatched. Knowing that there are more than thirty men stranded on the stern of the SS Pendleton – the ship had broken in half and the bow had sunk leaving only what was left of the stern to thrash about in the waves – the biggest concern is not so much finding the survivors in the middle of night during a devastating storm, but once they’ve found them, how could they possibly get them all down from what was left of the SS Pendleton and onto such a small craft, then find their way back to the shore again?
With so much conflict, not to mention Miriam’s firm and repeated request to “Please call them back,” there should be a constant feeling of tension, thrills, plus a crowd-pleasing sense of jubilation when good news begins to emerge, yet despite the overwhelming challenges, the emotions felt are ultimately mild.
The real event was stunning. Considering what they were up against, the response of the men of the US Coast Guard is exemplary. These men were true heroes in every sense of the word, but the film’s presentation of quiet timidity in its leading player, not to mention the hesitations of the officer-in-charge who here appears out of his league when faced with such daunting decisions, dulls that sense of get-up-and-go required to make events as nail-bitingly exciting as they should. Even from the point of view of the oil men on the sinking tanker, their make-shift leader Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) is presented as equally timid, speaking in a voice so low and unsure of himself, its often difficult to even hear him above the noise of the ever-building storm.
Much of the script is based on conversations and interviews had with the real survivors, but by constructing this fictional account as an adventurous disaster movie while presenting all sides as constantly apprehensive and timorous, the film surprisingly lacks a weighty, rousing center. When the most interesting and certainly the most determined character in the story is Bernie’s fiancée Miriam, something feels off-balance.
The CGI visuals are, as expected, splendid, and the scenic designs of America of the early fifties gets its sense of time just right, but for those spending that extra at the box-office for a 3D presentation are here up against another issue. More than ninety percent of the film is at night in the dark with hardly any light to guide the Coast Guard. All scenes, even interior ones, are dimly lit throughout. Almost everything in this film, whether it’s at sea or on the coast, including those early moments, are in subdued light. On the sinking tanker where the men huddle in order to survive, it’s even worse. By having to wear dark glasses for an extra fee, those dark scenes diminish sight even further. Disney’s insistence on releasing chunks of their productions in 3D is here with The Finest Hours absurd. The widescreen, TV trailers currently running on the small screen have a better clarity than the big screen version shown to the press.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 117 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)