Film Review: “The Finest Hours” (Lars and the Real Boat)

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Lars and the Real Boat

Let me be clear: I was loaded for bear when I walked into “The Finest Hours.”

The movie is not based on my book, Two Tankers Down, but I put in months of research and writing about the rescue of the crew of the SS Pendleton (and in my book, also the SS Fort Mercer.)

So with that investment, I was certain Hollywood was going to screw over another honest hero and turn him into some stereotyped cartoon character. The trailers and previews of the movie — cheesy bits and clips — only set my jaw in resolve to clobber the lotus eaters.

But slowly, as the film rolled, I was won over.

Director Craig Gillespie, who also did one of my favorite indie films, Lars and the Real Girl, pulled off a minor miracle here: giving what could have been a mindless action movie depth, emotion and importance. 

No, the meeting with Miriam was not exact. Bernie was no looker for one thing so the lines about how handsome he was surely would have made Mr. Webber shake with laughter.

And they left out this huge “meet cute” scene in the book where Miriam was a telephone operator who anonymously called Bernie and talked with him for hours when he was on overnight duty.

But they did what film directors and screen writers are supposed to do when they do things right: They captured the essence of it. The “bear” coat joke was in there. And so was the mood of the relationship.

When the scene changed to action at sea, I was astounded at how they captured the motion of the boat, the waves and the wind. You only get that sense if you’ve been to sea in winds and waves near that velocity. So how they imagined it or recreated remains a mystery to me. I just know that they did because I’ve been in seas that have made a supertanker roll at 30 degree angles.

You can quarrel with some of the plot choices. I won’t.

Miriam never visited Bernie at the Coast Guard station the night of the rescue. They were not engaged then. She was home in bed and Bernie did not even want to bother her. But of course she knew he would be “out there” on a night like that.

As a non-fiction author, this is something I could never do in my book, but then there are and should be different rules for film. No, you can’t have aliens intervene and show Bernie the way. (That only happens in Fargo.) And you can’t have him tow the ship to safety while swimming with a rope in his teeth.

But to my mind the romance is not some cheesy bit thrown into the movie stew to make this a date movie and sell popcorn. The romance serves a real purpose in defining the plot and the tensions and conflicts.

And that tension is this: the macho code of “you have to go out, you don’t have to come back” versus a more humane understanding of life and death situations.

In the world of non-fiction writing, I was able to do that by illustrating some of the crueler historical results of “you have to go out” philosophy where men needlessly were sent to their deaths — or in some cases shamed themselves into impossible rescue missions. Yes, it’s a code of valor and honor. But the cruel side of it is undeniable and needed to be stated.

You can’t do what I did in a movie. But Miriam can express that very human concern. And particularly in the confrontation with the Chief, she does this. To me that is a huge scene with the Chief reluctantly but resolutely confirming the order and Miriam persisting — until she could no longer persist.

So as a stickler for fact in non-fiction writing and narrative literature — no compound characters! no collapsing of time! — and as one of the toughest purveyors of fact in this rescue, I think they get more than a pass here.

I think they get applause for defining the issue. The Coast Guard spent more than 50 years wrestling with the philosophy before adapting a more common sense version of risk assessment. The Finest Hours nails it in about 10 minutes of narrative. They get props for that.

So much to my surprise, I walked out of the theater feeling the story had been told well and truly.

Other critics have not felt that way. I think many of them walked in expecting a Disney movie and a lot of the subtext to the movie went over their heads.

I’m not suggesting they are mouth breathers or slow learners.

Not all of them.

I am suggesting they know little of the real world of oceans and maritime rescues.

And also that they’ve spent way too much time expecting Iron Man to ironically save Wolverine from the Silver Surfer.

They seem to have lost their palate for a story that is — though not always factual — ever so truthful.

We seem to have forgotten that people act as Bernie Webber acted. (And as many people still do today, overshadowed by overpaid auto-tuned divas, overpaid athletes and cartoon comic book heroes with the same first world adolescent problems.)

One critic actually called the film “too old fashioned” because of its values.

And in a few weeks, I’ll wonder again how “Mad Max Part Five” is actually a contender for the Oscars and why those same critics consider it such a cinematic wonder.

In the meantime, let me urge you to see The Finest Hours.

Forget about the cheesy previews. Forget about the half-hearted reviews.

Just sit down and experience how a common man found true heroism within.

Because this is not a story from an earlier, simpler time. It is a story from a time when we recognized these values as true and worthwhile. The actions and the values are still around us.

We just don’t recognize them.

And in part, that is because they just don’t get that much attention from critics who have had their brains blasted out by irony and SurroundSound cartoon movies.

—–Bob Frump

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