[February 2, 2016]
On February 18, 1952, a brutal nor’easter raged off the coast of Cape Cod. The Ft. Mercer, A T2 oil tanker 500 feet long, severely battered by wind and waves, broke in two. The Coast Guard in Boston and Nantucket were called out to rescue the men trapped on board, twenty miles from shore.
With 60 foot seas and 80 mph wind, the mission looked insane. One of the men staying behind, Boatswain’s Mate 1st Class Bernie Webber, recalled thinking, “My God, do they really think a lifeboat and its crew could actually make it that far out to sea in this storm, and find the broken ship amid the blinding snow and raging seas, with only a compass to guide them? If the crew of the lifeboat didn’t freeze to death first, how would they be able to get the men off the storm-tossed sections of the broken tanker?”
Then, incredibly, word arrived that another T-2 tanker had split in two. The Pendleton had cracked open along a welded seam, and the two halves of the ship had drifted apart. No one on the Pendleton’s stern section realized that they had lost the front half of the ship until a young seaman, going along the catwalk, noticed that it ended in mid-air a few feet beyond him. (Why would this happen, twice in a row? Engineers later determined that the wartime steel used in building them had a high sulfur content, which made it become brittle at low temperatures.) There were now four enormous hulks adrift in the ocean, off the Massachusetts coast.
Thus begins a truly heroic story, presented in heart-stopping 3D. The Finest Hours starts by sketching-in some characters, but soon arrives at the rescue which is the heart of the story. Most Coast Guard resources had already been sent to aid the Ft. Mercer. Was there anything left for the Pendleton? Night was coming on when Bernie Webber (played by Chris Pine) was ordered to pick three volunteers, and set out on Chatham Station’s 36-foot, single-engine wooden “Motor Life Boat,” designed to carry 12 people. (Only when they reached the Pendleton did they learn there were 33 men to rescue.)
The only way out to sea lay over a sand bar that was treacherously redesigned by every tide. As they headed toward it, knowing they would likely die, the men sang “Rock of Ages.” They made it over safely, but the next wave hit them with such power it tossed the boat into the air. The next wave crashed across the boat, inundating it with tons of water. The four men clung to their places and survived, but when Webber regained control of the craft he saw that the compass was gone. So was the windshield, leaving him exposed to freezing wind and horizontal snow.
This is an extraordinary story, and an exciting one, and the movie presents it well. Not that it’s a complicated story; when I was looking over audio clips to use for a radio review, I realized that none of the dialogue matters. There’s not really even a plot. It’s all spectacle. But, compared with the parade of loud nonsense out there, it’s authentic spectacle.
Doesn’t it seem like a boat that small, if smacked only once by a wave, would go straight to the bottom? But this one was designed to bob to the top again and turn itself right-side-up, like those eggshaped plastic Weebles. In the trailer there’s a startling shot of the bisected stern half of the Pendleton sitting placidly on the water, and it looks flatly unbelievable. But, actually, that’s what happened; a massive half-ship like that could remain upright and functioning, even in gale-force winds and blizzard, as long as the pumps kept pumping. This movie includes an education in the physics of water.
(I couldn’t find an excuse to get this anecdote into the review, so I’m just going to stick it in anyway. I grew up on the Atlantic coast, going to the beach every week in the summer, and don’t remember anyone teaching me how to play in the surf. But I realized that it’s not an obvious skill, one time when I was at a conference in Miami. My friend from Colorado passed me on her way down to the beach, but soon came back again. She had a question: “How do you get in to the water? Because the waves keep hitting me.”)
Too much CGI at the movies is a great weariness, but this one abundantly justifies its special effects. Its strength comes, not from fake digitized magic, but from the real-life heroism of Webber and his crew. The Finest Hours has a PG-13 rating for “Intense scenes of peril,” and it’s certainly a nail-biter; but it’s also one of those movies that restores your faith in humanity. Bernie Webber and his companions each received the Gold Lifesaving Medal for “extreme and heroic daring” in their actions in the Pendleton rescue. Watching the courageous exploits of heroes in the past is a good way to inspire the heroes of the future.