I’ve climbed the swells of two oceans as they smashed against each other.
Aboard a flimsy wooden boat, I dangled my body over the prow as others huddled in the stern. They all thought we’re going to die.
The ocean wasn’t even angry then. But I can relate to the coast guard rescuers in their tiny vessel hurtling over mountains of water to rescue the crew of a tanker which split mid-storm in the “The Finest Hours”.
The epic action-thriller recreated a real life rescue, the most daring, made by a small boat in the history of the American Coast Guard.
In fact, I was at the edge of my seat, watching with bated breath as angry 60-foot waves alternately devoured and spat out their wooden vessel in the screaming gale.
Against all odds, coxswain Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) spotted the halved oil tanker SS Pendleton in zero visibility, rescued 32 of its 33 men and came home with a total of 36 men on his 12-seat lifeboat.
It seemed so long ago. On February 18, 1952, a storm hit New England, ripping two 500-foot oil tankers in half, stranding their crews at sea.. The first, SS Pendleton, was bound for Boston, Massachusetts. The second, the SS Fort Mercer, was headed for Portland, Maine.
The radioman on the Fort Mercer was able to send out a distress signal when it broke in half during the storm, but when an 18-foot fracture in the hull of the Pendleton’s engine room ruptured, the ship’s bow, where the radio room and pilothouse were situated, sunk before anyone could issue a call for help. All the officers were on the bow and they all perished.
This left nobody in clear command of the ship. Chief engineer Raymond Sybert (Casey Affleck) realized it was up to him to take charge of the frightened crew and keep the ship afloat as long as possible, in the process, becoming a reluctant hero.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard station in Chatham, Massachusetts was busy helping local fishermen protect their boats from the storm when they received word that the Fort Mercer was in trouble.
Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana), a recently appointed station chief, dispatches his best men to aid in the rescue effort in progress. When Cluff learns that a second ship, the Pendleton, was also damaged and is now adrift in nearby waters, he orders Bernie to assemble a three-man crew and take out a 36-foot motorized, wooden lifeboat to look for survivors.
Strangely, when the Boston-based filmmaker Dorothy Aufiero first read “The Finest Hours” book by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias documenting the Coast Guard’s attempts to rescue survivors from the two T2 oil tankers, she was shocked she had never heard about it before.
The SS Pendleton rescue made front-page news 64 years ago but not everyone today is familiar with the story, including families of the men who were part of the rescue itself. “These guys just didn’t talk about it because to them, it was their job,” she explains.
“These young men knew exactly what they were getting into when they climbed into that tiny lifeboat. They had the courage to go out there and put others’ safety first and do something incredible and I find that truly inspirational.”
When she brought the project to producer Jim Whitaker, he felt an immediate connection to the story. “My family lived in an eastern maritime town similar to Chatham, so I related to the story on a personal level. I knew about the Coast Guard and about the lives of people who made their living on the water and wanted to tell a story about the people that I grew up with.”
They agreed that recreating the rescue on the big screen was the perfect way to immortalize the story and brought the idea to Disney, which has released many films based on true stories over the years – “Cool Runnings,” “Dangerous Minds,” “Invincible,” “Miracle” and “A Civil Action,” among others. The studio green-lit the project that same day.
Director Craig Gillespie was perfect for the film says Jim. “The movie is about a bunch of men going through this very difficult thing, but it’s also about their humanity and the emotionality of their actions. Craig is particularly good at finding those emotional moments and drawing them out in this beautifully-subtle way.”
“Yes, it’s the story of the greatest small-boat rescue in Coast Guard history, but it also has all these great characters who really were unsung heroes,” the director acquiesced. “There was a sense of purity to that generation of men in that they often put others before themselves, and that’s what makes them so heroic.”
When Chris Pine, who played Petty Officer First Class Bernie Webber, the hero captain of the CG36500 lifeboat, got hold of the script, he simply couldn’t put it down.
“I like Bernie because he’s not encumbered by any cynicism or irony and he’s not slick and sharp…he’s not ‘big city.’ He’s a man from a different time,” was how he described his character. “He grew up in a family of very strong men who went into battle and got their badges. Bernie, too young to go to war, feels he should have been there.”
Interestingly, Bernie led a similar rescue mission one year before the SS Pendleton disaster and failed. A major squall trapped the William J. Landry, a fishing boat from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Thrice Bernie tried to rescue the fishermen on board but the boat was destroyed and their crew never found. That tragedy haunted Bernie – and it must have been on his mind when he sped to rescue the Pendleton too.
“Because this is a true story you want to do justice to these men and what they accomplished. You want to pay tribute to them and capture the essence of who they were,” Chris explained.
As part of his character internalization process, he listened to the actual audio recording of Bernie telling the story many years later. “You could tell that he had told the story many time. I got the feeling that he didn’t want to talk about it much anymore. In talking with people who knew Bernie I found this was a great part of who he was—a quiet guy who took very seriously a job that he was very good at.”
Bernie died aged 81 in 2009. A few months after his rescue of the Pendleton crew, he married his headstrong sweetheart, Miriam (Holliday Grainger) – who proposed marriage to him shortly before he set out on his most dangerous mission and who tried to talk his superior into calling him back when she discovered what he was up to. They remained together for 58 years until his death.
Casey Affleck, a native Bostonian, played Raymond Sybert, the mid-level crew member aboard the Pendleton who suddenly became the man to whom everyone looks for guidance. “The story really spoke to me about heroism and leadership. These men were in a terrifying situation, yet they figured out a way to work together, ultimately bringing out the best in one another to accomplish the unthinkable.”
Overall, “When you read a script about a sinking ship you wonder how they are going to bring that to life on screen and make it feel real and still look spectacular, but Craig did it, and he always seemed so calm and collected,” he observed.