Off of the coast of Cape Cod in 1952, two oil tankers were split in half by a giant storm, but only one of them had a chance to send out an S.O.S. As the main Coast Guard unit worked to rescue those on the first ship, SS Fort Mercer, a handful of men left the Chatham, Massachusetts, station to conduct a suicide mission in an effort to save the thirty-three crewmen aboard the SS Pendleton.
The Finest Hours is the story of these men.
Director Craig Gillespie’s film shines a backdrop into the life of Bertrand Webber (Chris Pine), a quiet man who is too meek to ask the love of his life, Miriam (Holliday Grainger), to marry him or to speak up when he’s being bullied. We know that Webber’s last mission ended disastrously, and some in his community still blame him for the loss of life. But now, Webber has a new boss from out of town who doesn’t know the history (or the waters) in Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana) and he’s sent out to save the men of the Pendleton, even when all of the locals know that it can’t be done.
Aboard the Pendleton, Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) tries at first to avoid the destruction of his ship, and after that, he does everything he can to save the crew. With only half of a ship to navigate, he aims to run it aground, but his biggest problem may be in the selfishness of loudmouthed Seaman Brown (Michael Raymond-James). While Sybert refuses to believe in luck, Brown says that each of the men must fight for themselves, that abandoning the ship (and therefore, community) is there only way of survival. But Sybert and Seaman Quirey (John Ortiz) hold to hope – and prayer – that rescue will be possible.
While the film has a bit of a Perfect Storm feel to it, there’s quite a bit of the Walt Disney underdog going on, too. Webber is someone we want to root for, even while Miriam proves to be both the force and the light that drives him. They banter early on about how “not everyone comes back,” and we’re told that this might be about marriage or it might be about the Coast Guard (to chuckles from the audience). But either way, we’re clear that this is a story of romance and marriage forged in a dangerous cauldron of real-life and experience. Yes, there are moments we wish might be more potent but it’s based on a true story.
Sitting at approximately 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, The Finest Hours might be one of the purest of stories. Sure, it’s not groundbreaking or mind-blowing, but it’s the kind of story Unbroken was: it’s based on a true story that should carry its own weight. Four men facing certain death went out into the dangerous night for the infinitesimally small chance that they might rescue thirty-three. Call it “duty,” or “courage,” “honor,” or “redemption,” what they did was extraordinary.
Webber is urged to turn back, even ordered to, but he knows who he is on the sea – even when he doesn’t know who he is on the land. He goes boldly out even while others urge him to fake it, to do just “enough.” He goes out without a plan for how to get back because that isn’t his call. And because he goes out, he inspires others as well. [This is a fair point for Sybert, too, to be fair.]
There are plenty of smaller points to be made – the bits about the forgiveness for Webber’s failed mission, or the intelligence and strength of the women who stand behind their men to create a community of salvation for others, or the way that four men answer a call while others put their heads down and turn away – but the image of the light which shows us “home” shines as the brightest image of the film.
When we get lost, how do we get back? It’s no GPS or bread crumbs, but the illumination that shows us how to return. As Sybert says, “it’s not luck,” but guidance, profound and spiritual – lit up by the love and blessing of a God who overcomes all and works in all for our good. Is there danger? Yes. Suffering? Yes. But in the end, it’s the prayers that are accompanied by faith and work in community that see us through – as they do these men. When we look down, away, wildly about, yes, we sink like Peter – but when we stay focused on the Light, we can find our way, ultimately, home.