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Heroic Virtue on the High Seas in “The Finest Hours”

Disney Films

David Ives - published on 01/29/16

Based on the true story of the most daring small-craft rescue in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard

How much you enjoy The Finest Hours may just depend on how you like to see your heroes portrayed in movies. When first we meet Coast Guardsman Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), he’s insecure, terminally shy and deferential to a fault. He’s also in no way a maverick, loose cannon or wild card. In fact, Bernie is so by the book that he won’t even consider marrying the girl he loves until he goes through the formality of asking his senior officer’s permission. This is not the stuff your typical action hero is made of.

And yet if Pine’s portrayal of Webber is accurate, this is exactly the kind of man who, with three of his fellow guardsmen, carried out what is still to this day considered the most daring small-craft rescue in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.

On February 18, 1952, during a massive nor’easter off the coast of New England, both the SS Fort Mercer and the SS Pendleton split in two. The Fort Mercer managed to send out a distress signal, and rescue vessels were dispatched immediately. The Pendelton, however, was not as lucky, and the Coast Guard only discovered its situation after most resources had already been devoted to the other tanker. By the time the decision was made to attempt to reach the Pendelton, only Webber and his crewmates were available to try to save the 34 men on board. Not an enviable task for the guardsmen as their small vessel was designed to hold only 12 people, the waves were reaching 50 feet and a notoriously deadly shoal stood between them and their destination.

This is the tale told in The Finest Hours, the latest film by director Craig Gillespie (Lars and The Real Girl, Fright Night). The narrative basically follows three stories. On the shore is Bernie’s potential fiancé, Miriam (Holliday Grainger), who slowly finds herself drawn into the small, tight-knit community of people who can only sit and wait to see if their loved ones will return from the sea. Out in the deep are the men of the Pendelton who, led by assistant engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), struggle to keep their half a ship afloat while praying (literally) that someone is looking for them. In between the two is Bernie and his men, alone in the storm with no instruments for navigation.

It’s a good story. Unfortunately, The Finest Hours is probably a bit too pedestrian and old fashioned in its storytelling to appeal to many modern action fans. Given the subject matter, one could be forgiven for expecting enormous explosions and amazing feats of super-heroic athleticism (and maybe even a shark or two — those are always welcome in ocean-related movies) punctuated by stirring inspirational speeches and cocky one-liners. Instead, what we get in The Finest Hours is a depiction of competent men resolutely doing their jobs under the worst of circumstances. You know, how you would really want them to be in real life.

St. Augustine was often fond of the idea of heroic virtue, the unfailing exercise of the moral virtues in all circumstances, whether they be dramatic or tediously boring. It’s the kind of heroism all of us are called to perform. One of the nice things about The Finest Hours is that it spends enough time with its main protagonists before the storm hits that we get a sense that that was how most of these men were. So once all hell does break loose, their more traditional acts of heroism don’t come across as swaggering bravado but more of an extension of who they are during quieter times. It’s kind of refreshing, actually.

Even though the film lacks flash, the compelling true events and generally decent characters still make for an enjoyable enough watch for an evening’s entertainment. As long as you’re not waiting for the standard action heroes to show up, that is.

In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by … watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.

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