On February 18, 1952, one of the worst nor’easters in history hit New England. The seas off Cape Cod were so severe that two oil tankers, caught in the storm, split in two.
While the SS Fort Mercer was able to issue an urgent S.O.S., the SS Pendleton’s fore section was swallowed too quickly by the ocean for the ship to broadcast a distress call. Their captain went down with the front part of the ship, leaving 34 sailors in the stern with no idea whether the world was even aware of their plight.
Fortunately, a tow truck driver (Matthew Maher) spotted a light from the Pendleton as she was listing off the coast of Chatham, and knew that he had to report it to the authorities immediately. Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana), the officer in charge of the local Coast Guard station, didn’t hesitate to order a rescue attempt despite the blizzard’s frigid temperatures and gale force winds.
He called upon Bosun’s Mate Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) who hastily assembled a crew composed of Seamen Richard Livesey (Ben Foster), Ervin Maske (John Magaro), and Engineman Andrew Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner). The team left the harbor aboard a small motorized lifeboat that only seated a dozen people and offered scant protection against the elements.
It would take a yeoman’s effort to reach the sinking Pendleton because the tiny Coast Guard lifeboat encountered waves as high as 70 feet when they reached the open seas. Moreover, Webber had lost his compass when they were swamped by one of the waves.
Meanwhile, the remaining sailors on the Pendleton were doing their best to keep what was left of the ship afloat. With the skipper and his other officers lost in the front half of the tanker, a new leader emerged in Engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), who had nerves of steel and a wealth of naval knowledge.
The veteran sailor took command of the crew, and realized that survival depended upon keeping the electric pumps functioning long enough for them to ground the vessel on a sandbar. Back in Chatham the worried families of the brave Coast Guardsmen, including Bernie’s fiancee Miriam (Holliday Grainger), were waiting to hear news about their loved ones.
Directed by Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm), The Finest Hours is a gripping seafaring adventure reminiscent of The Perfect Storm (2000). It is based on a bestseller that recounts the real-life exploits of unsung heroes who rose to the occasion in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
A visually-captivating and moving depiction of what, to this day, remains the most daring Coast Guard rescue on record.
Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for intense peril. Running time: 117 minutes. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures.