Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

Hollywood must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed by Craig Gillespie
Produced by Jim Whitaker and Dorothy Aufiero
Written by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson, based on the book by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias
Released by Disney nationally January 29, 2016
USA. 83 min. Rated PG-13
With: Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Holliday Grainger, John Ortiz, Kyle Gallner, John Magaro, Michael Raymond James, Abraham Benrubi, Josh Stewart, Rachel Brosnahan, Keiynan Lonsdale, and Eric Bana

The Finest Hours is the latest rugged men vs. the angry sea movie, and like almost all of them, the nor’easter on February 18, 1952 rides out more cinematically in the storm (available in 3D and IMAX) than on the shore, with vivid recreations of 60-foot high waves and the howl of 80 mile hour winds. Based on the The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman, which I dutifully read, the adaptation, by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson, has a land story that is almost entirely fictional. So its formalistic reaction cuts to a spunky worried woman, let alone leading community support, are that much more pandering for what women audiences would presumably want, as if the marketing team was afraid of filling seats for a mostly male story.

With the intrinsic genre problem of taciturn male heroes, the too-long prologue elaborately sets up Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) as a shy young man slowly falling in love with the saucy redheaded switchboard operator Miriam (Holliday Grainger) – such that his Coast Guard buddies at the Chatham (Massachusetts) Station tease him for letting her take the lead. Disney’s promotional materials promote him to “Captain”, but he was then a Boatswain’s Mate First Class. So he was the last supervisor available to Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana), played a lot like Humphrey Bogart’s paranoid Commander Queeg in Edward Dmytryk’s The Caine Mutiny (1954), as he’s sure the thickly accented Down Easterners were mocking his Southern way of talking, for rescuing half the crew of the split tanker SS Pendleton, as the huge storm had coincidentally already split another tanker (The SS Fort Mercer) – with sadly a less successful rescue.

The long prologue is particularly annoying because we get almost no background or personality insight on the other members of his accidental crew – Seaman Richard Livesey (Ben Foster, uncharacteristically using only a couple of grim expressions); Andy Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner); and Ervin Maske (John Magaro), a Coastie who had just showed up to wait out the storm at the Station until he could get back to his lightship – and was the only one who volunteered for this risky rescue assignment. There’s a stream of references to an earlier unsuccessful rescue of a fishing boat that haunted Webber and the local community (including craggy old fishermen and a widow played by Rachel Brosnahan, of Manhattan), but other than guilt there’s little technical, geographic, or meteorological background for comparison, other than the repeating assurance “There was nothing else you could have done”. Unfortunately, missing are more details on the dreaded Chatham Bar that looms for the #36500 wooden motor lifeboat – as in only 36 feet long, with a cabin meant to fit 12 people. Badly needed here are inserts of Nova-style graphics and explanation of the movement of waves over and around the sandbar, let alone the storm, as these guys don’t talk muchj. Hey, Disney, girls, too, want to know How Things Work!

Compared to the Coast Guardsmen, the crew of the Pendleton get a bit of the 3-D treatment, even though that’s more awarded to the waves that split their ship and blow away all their unseen officers, in the bow half, never to be seen again. Most of this crew in the stern gets one defining characteristic. Wallace Quirey, identified here as a “Seaman”, but he was actually the third assistant engineer (played by John Ortiz) is just a negative voice about any attempts to be pro-active. The accent of Michael Raymond James’ unnamed seaman represents the crew members from the home port of Louisiana, and the memory of “Tiny” Myers is respectfully preserved through Abraham Benrubi’s good-natured cook.

Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) is the most thinking human character in the film because he gets to do more than look worried. A steady loner frequently teased as being “married to his ship”, he’s here called the first assistant engineer, instead of his actual rank as Chief Engineer, to exaggerate that he’s pushed into a leadership role after the crew has to argue through their willingness to trust him. His clever machinations on the fly to jerry-rig maneuvers that he calculates could possibly increase the infinitesimal chance of rescue by putting the disabled tanker in stasis amidst the high, pounding waves and power outages are genuinely intriguing and suspenseful to watch. Unlike the stoic and drenched rescuers, the necessary cooperation of these seamen, including quickly passing along directional messages up and down the long corridors and broken catwalks, are the best non-CGI sequences by as filmed by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe. (Nice to see one of my faves Josh Stewart, since his days on Third Watch, as a presumably composite assistant, though he barely gets to say anything.)

Opening days after the anniversary of the Congressional creation of the Coast Guard in 1915, the concluding scroll has a wonderful array of headlines and photographs of the individuals and the crews, as a local photojournalist was on the pier that night when the crew and 32 survivors limped into the harbor. (The verisimilitude of the period with soundtrack songs and Grainger’s fetching outfits, by costume designer Louise Frogley, is undercut by the Disney smoking ban. While I find no explicit reference to an African-American crew member on the tanker, portraying such a kitchen worker, played by Keiynan Lonsdale, looks historically reasonable to be inclusionary.) But while all four rescuers are cited as receiving the Coast Guard’s highest award, the Gold Lifesaving Medal – left out is that Webber refused the initial offer of the honor until all his other three crewmen were also credited. Even so, none of their family members were allowed to attend the medal ceremony. For years, Webber resented how the service used him like the Iwo Jima flag-raisers were, as seen in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (2006), as the rescue was played to lift the military’s image during the stalemated Korean War. (My Dad was a Naval Reserve Officer serving at Newport News at this time.) So it’s that much sadder to know that the boat was left to rot at the Cape Cod National Seashore and was only restored by dedicated volunteers in time for the 30th anniversary in 1982 of what is still the largest open-sea rescue by a small boat in U.S. maritime history.

Though Wolfgang Petersen’s The Perfect Storm (2000) is my base line as the worst of this genre with its tired stereotypes, I have sympathy that seeing the similar wave action finally led Maske, the volunteer rescuer, to tearfully tell his family of his participation that scary night, The Finest Hours doesn’t come close to my gold standard for comparison, Peter Weir’s fictional Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). But coming just a few weeks after Ron Howard’s In The Heart of the Sea, with its fascinating history, this film does have far better and more exciting sea action scenes that director Craig Gillespie well-integrates with the CGI, bolstered by Carter Burwell’s swelling, but not nautically themed, score. It was nicely sentimental for the Coast Guardsmen to sing one chantey outbound for reassurance.

NB: This review is in fulfillment of Disney’s requirement that I post a review in order to be kept on their invitation list for press screenings.

January 28, 2016

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of many of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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