Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
In the winter of 1952, a nor’easter struck the coast of New England, ripping two T2 oil tankers in half within about 40 miles of each other. While most of the rescue effort was dispatched to the Mercer, the crew of the Pendleton was battling disasters of their own while waiting for their saviors – four members of the coast guard, including Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), Richard Livesey (Ben Foster), Andy Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner) and Ervin Maske (John Magaro), on a tiny lifeboat. Director Craig Gillespie’s THE FINEST HOURS chronicles their real-life harrowing, courageous and incredibly tense hours spent defying the odds, saving the remaining Pendleton crew.
The merit of truth in cinematic stories like these have recently come under scrutiny – not just from the media, but also from mainstream audiences. Gillespie states,
“Chronologically, it’s so accurate to what happened. They really stayed true to all the facts. Bernie Webber actually did turn the Coast Guard off. He sort of disobeyed orders at that point and made that call. It’s a major character choice which was great for us in the film. They did an amazing job pulling from real details.”
Foster says it’s dependent on the filmmaker and the story they want to tell.
“Each film has a different style or approach. Each filmmaker is gonna come at it with a different interest or line of questioning to pursue. This film had a heightened quality from the world of classic cinema that it’s based in. There’s an elevated element of cinema that we’re all aware of when we’re going in to do it. Other films may have more of a documentary sense and scale to pursue the detail work. That’s not necessarily this movie. That said, the quality of these people, it was important to find a value system that was tonally as close to as possible.”
This authenticity-driven approach was also extended to how Gillespie utilized real-life locations.
“We shot at the actual coast guard station down at the pier. We’re using a replica of the 36-500 – down to every detail. It’s just a slight cream instead of white. Same with the Pendleton with the references with the ship’s schematics. Our production designer did an astounding job building those things.”
For Pine, it wasn’t about the locations, but rather how Webber was represented on the page.
“My duty is to the script and the story. Otherwise it would be incongruous and wouldn’t work. To that end, my relationship to Bernie was more about this audio recording I had and where I felt closest to the man he may have been – just Bernie talking to a small town newspaper fifteen some odd years later and he’s so bored. The man is so bored of talking about it. He has this wonderful New England lilt. He’s a by the books, regular Joe. It was very illuminating for me. I drew whatever I could out of that but he seemed like a man who didn’t want to talk about it – wanted to get on with his life and was bored talking about it.
We did get the chance to visit Chatham and the coast guard station and the cafeteria there where the boys went and shared a coffee after their night where they seemed to be laughing and joking around.”
Foster provides an answer,
“It’s a strange world of how people process trauma. I don’t have an answer for it but it is curious – the greatest generation in comparison to what’s going on now. I suppose on a small level, when we’re talking about war, the uniforms are more clear to identify. The uniform of this is Mother Nature. The uniform of a body of water is harrowing and coming home after doing something like that is very clean and simple. The wars we hear about today are not so clear. Therein lies the smile at the end of the day with the coffee.”
Holliday Grainger, who plays Webber’s fiancé Miriam, was able to meet with her character’s “lovely” daughter, Patty. However, Grainger didn’t want to infringe on Patty’s trust to do right by her portrayal of her mother.
“Miriam was quite a private person and she really wanted to respect that. She had footage on her phone of Miriam, but wouldn’t show me. I was desperate to see it – so desperate. I’m sure I could have pushed, but it just felt really disrespectful to try. Patty was really open about where the stories in the script came from – what the real events were and how they were similar. She was the strong matriarch of the family – super warm and definitely wore the trousers.”
Grainger admits that her role was beefed up through a sprinkling of “Disney Magic.”
“Miriam’s journey in the film is a bit Disney Magic’d. The relationship between Miriam and Bernie is definitely taken from true events; she overheard a phone conversation with Bernie because she worked at a telephone center and they started this telephone relationship for four months before they even met. They fell in love over the phone. She was that one who pursued the marriage. I don’t know if she was the one to actually propose. In the movie, they are about to get in the car but in actual events, they were in the car and wouldn’t get out until Bernie agreed to marry her. There are lots of almost to the book similarities.”
“Obviously, there’s always dramatic license because you’re making a film – you’re not making a documentary. The biggest conceit in this film is the romance that’s happening at that period. It happened, but it didn’t happen that night. I feel comfortable with that. In terms of the spectacle, that was all actual events. I feel like we’re in good shape.”
THE FINEST HOURS opens on January 29.