When you see “Based on a True Story” on a movie poster or trailer one must take such a statement with a grain of salt. William Wallace of Braveheart fame did not have an affair with Isabelle of France (she was only four years old at the time), the third class passengers were not locked below decks as shown in James Cameron’s Titanic, and despite what Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor would have you believe Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnet did not win WWII all by themselves. So when I sat down to watch Disney’s The Finest Hours I was ready for a whole lot of Hollywood hokum, but surprisingly this film by Craig Gillespie is fairly accurate…not completely accurate of course, this is Hollywood after all.
The movie is based on the book The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue by Michael J. Tougias which deals with one of the most dangerous and daring rescue attempts in Coast Guard history. In 1952 two an oil tanker broke in half during a brutal winter storm, and while most of the resources were sent to rescue the people from the sinking tanker S.S. Fort Mercer only four men were sent to aid the equally sinking S.S. Pendleton. The movie focuses on these three characters; Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) who leads the rescue team, Chief Engineer Raymond L. Sybert (Casey Affleck) who takes command of the sinking tanker, and Miriam Penttinen (Holliday Grainger) who in this film is Webber’s fiancé while in reality they’d been married for more than a year in and a half. Though the film does accurately mention that they first met over the phone, and that it was Miriam who proposed to Webber, she is in this film solely for Hollywood’s need for a pretty face.
In the movie when Webber is sent out on what most believe to be a suicide mission Miriam shows up at the Coast Guard station to demand that station’s commander, Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana), call off the rescue attempt an bring her fiancé home. This did not happen. Miriam was actually at home with the flu and learned only of the heroic efforts of her husband after he had safely returned. I found Grainger to be fine in this role but it clearly wasn’t needed. Whenever the film cut back to her yelling at Eric Bana, or comforting a widow, I just wanted to get back to the action, and it is pretty insane action and my hat is off to the real heroes if even half of what we see on screen happened. With the Chief Engineer doing everything he can to keep his half ship afloat and Webber trying to get his small Coast Guard motor lifeboat passed the dangerous Chatham Bar we didn’t need to cut to the women folk wringing the hands with worry. We didn’t need it in The Perfect Storm and we didn’t need it here.
Webber had three volunteers with him Richard Livesey (Ben Foster), Andy “Fitz” Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner) and Ervin Maske (John Magaro) who went out with him on that small boat to attempt the impossible. Facing waves between 40 and 60 feet high their boat was tossed around like a toy.
Note: As awesome as this scene is I doubt the veracity of no one wearing any form of seatbelt as we see in this movie. The boat is rolled over and submerged so many times I was starting to wonder if it was part submersible, but nobody seems concerned with the dangers of being washed overboard.
Meanwhile onboard the oil tanker S.S. Pendleton Chief Engineer Sybert does his best to keep the ship afloat long enough for rescue. With the half of the boat containing the bridge and radio they had no way of radioing for help. That Webber found them at night, in a blizzard, has to be equal parts skill and blind luck. Webber himself was having enough problems having lost the boat’s compass when a wave ripped it away. So even if he managed to find the Pendleton he’d be hard pressed to find home again. This all leads to some incredible edge of your seat moments, making this film well worth checking out, but it’s not without its flaws. As I mentioned before I found the “fiancé” stuff completely unnecessary to the story, but equally unnecessary was having the station commander be a dick and possibly too inexperienced for his job. This is a cliché that appears in dozens of military movies and needs to be retired. We also have the naysayer cliché character aboard the Pendleton; Seaman Brown’s (Michael Raymond-James) sole purpose is to be the asshole that questions everything the Chief Engineer suggests.
Disney is not making a documentary here, so some artistic liberties are bound to be taken, and for the most cases I didn’t mind them, but if they could have left the drama to “Man against Nature” and gave the “Man against Man” element a rest I think it would have been a better movie. All said and done this is a decent movie with a very good cast and some great visual effects. If anything this film does honor some incredibly brave men, who are damn good at their jobs, and who managed to pull off a miracle against all odds. So check it out, you won’t be disappointed.