The heart-stopping true story of what is considered to be the greatest small-boat rescue in America’s Coast Guard history occurred on 18 Februry 1952 when a powerful storm literally ripped the SS Pendleton oil tanker in half. Kept afloat by its ballast with more than 30 men on board, a ship’s engineer rallied the crew to keep themselves alive. On learning of the disaster, the Coast Guard, stretched to the limits already responding to other martime situations along the New England seaboard, sent four men on a suicide mission in a wooden lifeboat to investigate.
Based on the book by Casey Sherman and Michael J Tougias, The Finest Hours is an exhausting action-thriller brought to vivid life by director Craig Gillespie and a capable cast led by Chris Pine and Casey Affleck.
Screenwriters Eric Johnson, Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy tell three stories, beginning with the romance between Bernie Webber (Pine) and his girlfriend Miriam (Holliday Grainger). As the action increases, Miriam’s tale provides us with the land-based side of events: both the concern of loved ones, and the struggle of the Coast Guard to keep afloat with the unfolding catastrophes around them. These moments give us a desperately needed breather from the intensity of the two other sides of this overarching story, which switches between the battered lifeboat rescue crew facing 60-foot waves and hurricane winds, and the perilous fight for survival of those aboard the sinking tanker.
Set in the 1950s, there’s a naivety and simplicity to the land-based action which doesn’t gel with the rest of the film, compounded by the sharp drop in pace. It’s like watching two different films, particularly given how smoothly both sea-based stories blend in pace and tension. Off land, the intensity of the drama is high and unrelenting, making Miriam’s side of events little more than a distraction. The writers compensate by introducing the main thrust of the story early in the piece and focussing primarily on the two more exciting angles.
Based on a true story, the closing titles offer a glimpse of the real people involved, which is always a nice touch to honour the real heroes, and it’s surprising how well cast the film is physically to represent the real people.
The Finest Hours is one of the most thrilling, edge-of-your-seat adventures to hit our screens for a long time. Without the use of modern technology and know-how to battle the odds, it depicts real men relying on their own wits and courage to prove that nothing is impossible against determination and the human spirit.
Reviewed by Rod Lewis
Rating out of 10: 8