“Finest Hours” No Masterpiece but a Stirring Tribute to US Coast Guard
By Skip Sheffield
The U.S. Coast Guard is the oldest branch of American military service, dating to 1790. It is my favorite service because its primary purpose is to save people, not kill them.
“The Finest Hours” centers on an incredibly difficult rescue mission off the coast of Chatham, Mass, on Feb. 18, 1952 in the middle of a ferocious nor’easter blizzard with high winds and higher seas. Two large oil tankers were being battered apart and in danger of sinking. The movie, directed by Craig Gillespie (“Million Dollar Arm”), concentrates on the more dramatic wreck of the SS Pendleton. It was an older ship with a shoddy repair of an 18-foot gash. When the weld gave way the ship literally split in half. The bow portion sunk quickly, taking officers with it. The remaining 34 crewmen huddled in the stern section.
The commander of the Chatham Coast Guard Base asked for four volunteers to get in a 36-foot rescue craft and try to make it out to the sinking Pendleton. The first to put up his hand is Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) a gung-ho Guardsman if there ever was one.
Chris Pine is an inordinately handsome man, but as an actor he is a bit, ahem, wooden. Bernie is falling in love with gorgeous Miriam (Holliday Grainger), who looks like a Disney princess come to life. The couple’s romance, impending marriage and Miriam’s worry about the dangerous mission are all subplot. Volunteering with Bernie are Richard (Ben Foster), Andy (Kyle Gallner and Daniel (Eric Bana).
The de facto commander of the doomed Pendleton is chief engineer Ray Sybert, played by Casey Affleck. Ray is not a very likeable guy, but he gets the job done.
The voyage out of Chatham Harbor and into the open sea is predictably perilous. There is a lot of grimacing, wincing and frightened looks from all crew members. The special effects are reasonably good, but sometimes you can tell it’s a scale-model boat being buffeted in a studio pool.
A nice thing the studio did was to invite a group of Coast Guard veterans, decked out in formal regalia and seated at place of honor in the VIP section. One of them was seated next to me. I did not ask his age, but Bruce Parmett told me he was a Korean War veteran before joining the Coast Guard. He teaches boat safety classes the fourth Saturday of every month.
“The Finest Hours” is no movie masterpiece but it serves a noble service honoring the America military’s most unsung heroes.