This Disney film, about a real-life sea rescue, celebrates stoicism and bravery so, naturally, Blake Backlash objects.
The Finest Hours is set in 1952, and is based on a true-story, so it’s a bit odd that in the first scene Bernard ‘Bernie’ Webber (a Coast Guard, played by Chris Pine) appears to be going on an internet date. He’s meeting his future wife Miriam Pentinen (Holliday Grainger) for the first time – but they’ve spoken before and she knows what he looks like, although he doesn’t know what she looks like. I can only assume they met via some primitive 1950s version of OKCupid and she didn’t put her picture up on the profile.
It’s not hard to imagine the kind of dating profile Webber (or at least the rendered in Pine version we see here) would have:
Status: In an Open Relationship with The Sea.
The Six Things I Could Not Do Without: Brylcreem, mother, stoicism, the camaraderie of my brother Coast Guards; Spotify; my waterproofs!
Anyway, they get together and later on, they want to get married. Bernie is supposed to ask his boss, Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana) for permission to get married, although everyone keeps telling him that he doesn’t really have to, it’s just a formality, so his commitment to doing so is one of several signifiers of Bernie’s aw-gee-shucks old-fashioned American-ness. As Bernie struggles to pop the question to Cluff, off the coast of Massachusetts, in the engine room of the SS Pendleton, Casey Affleck is on the blower telling his captain that if he doesn’t slow down a new weld in the hull is going to split. The Captain doesn’t listen, but Casey was right, and the Pendleton splits. When I saw the film I was amazed that the real life dude Casey was playing was called Ray Seabird. Ray Seabird! Why not Ossian Sharkey? Checking the imdb later, it turns out that the crew were calling him Sybert, but so many people on the ship speak with these Popeye via Cape Cod sailor accents that it’s hard to tell.
Anyway, Sybert convinces the crew that their best hope is to run their half ship aground on a reef and wait for rescue. This plan is briefly opposed by the main-dick on the crew, a chap who indicates his dickishness by wanting to cut short prayers for the Captain, because he feels that, as the ship is sinking as they pray, it might be an idea to talk about what they should actually do. This is the kind of film where disbelief in the efficacy of prayer marks you out as a wrong ’un. Anyway, Sybert wins his argument with the dick by getting an axe, barging his way to the front of the queue for the lifeboats, chopping the rope that ties it to the boat and releasing an empty lifeboat into the ocean. Someone notices it has been smashed to toothpicks before Sybert gets thrown overboard, but this struck me as the riskiest and most reckless way to win an argument since John McClane proved that a gun was loaded with blanks by shooting the blanks at a cop in the middle of Dulles Airport.
So they run aground and wait. Cluff sends Bernie and three other men out in a tiny wee boat to get them. But there’s a storm on and getting out to sea means crossing ‘the bar’, a shoal that makes the waves go crazy. We find out about the bar from the sullen mutterings of a trio of furtive fishermen, one of whom, Carl Nickerson (nicely played by Matthew Maher), blames Bernie for failing to rescue his brother in a previous storm. Bernie takes all of this on his manly shoulders with his usual quiet fortitude. You wish he was more the wise-cracking smartarse type, if only so he could say ‘Alright calm down Mr Nickerson! Don’t get your “knickers in” a twist!’. But he doesn’t, he sets out to sea to handle the storm, leaving Miriam on shore to deal with the locals.
Incidentally, there’s so much more potential in the on-shore stuff than the at sea stuff. Grainger isn’t well-served by the script (she just pals around with Nickerson’s sister) and you wish there was more for her to get her teeth into. She’s left among these townsfolk, all dark recriminating looks and oily-jackets over nursed grudges. One feels there’s more drama, more danger here than in the teeth of the storm.
But the film prefers Bernie. Someone suggests to Bernie that he takes out the wee tiny coast guard boat they give him, pootle about a bit, kid on he’s got lost and come home safe. But Bernie is determined get over the bar. Because it’s the right thing to do? To make up for that other time he couldn’t get over it? Because America? I don’t know and no one asks him. This would be fine but he’s also risking the lives of the three other men in the boat with him. They don’t question it though, they don’t say much at all, they’re as quiet and stoic as Bernie is. It’s all very honourable, but I wanted some Falstaff to ask Can honour set to a leg? No: or an arm? No: or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? … Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday.
They make it to the Pendleton. At first they see just a single figure on deck. Is this the sole survivor? No, he calls out and soon thirty or so men run to the rail to join him, whooping and hollering. I confess, for one wicked moment, I wished that the momentum of this sudden rush of men to one side of the ship would cause the Pendleton (which I assume to be somewhat precariously balanced on that sand bank) to slowly and horribly tip to one side, as her remaining crew go from whooping and hollering to shouting ‘Aaaaaaaaaaw shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit!’ their Popeye voices joined together for one last time, as their ship topples toward the frozen ocean.
Instead all of them are rescued. Which is probably better than my idea, this being a real-life event and all. The poster for the film says ’32 Survivors. Room for 12’ so I was wondering if at this point there might be some nasty fights to see who makes it on-board. Instead Bernie just tells everyone to get on and they sail back to port. There’s nothing nasty about the film.
Which is why I didn’t like it. Some critics seem to have found its old-fashioned restraint refreshing. So maybe it’s churlish to complain – after all, this is a Disney movie and based on a true story. And the photographs of the real people we see over the end credits are more stirring than anything in the film. But we also get a caption that makes a point of telling us Bernie and Miriam stayed married for 58 years, until Bernie’s death. And you start to think about who the film is going out of its way not to offend. What we’re being sold when we watch this are notions about how prayer works; how marriage between a man and a woman is a fine thing; and how, you know, maybe things were better in the 50s?
This a Red State movie and maybe if this was not an election year it wouldn’t bother me so much. It’s the sort of film Jeb Bush would watch with his Mum.
The Finest Hour is out today.