How Accurate Is 'The Finest Hours'? The Seafaring Rescue Doesn't Need Much Embellishment
In Disney's latest film, The Finest Hours, the studio heads back to the inspirational, real life, live action drama well that they've had some success with over the years. But unlike their recent sports dramas like Million Dollar Arm and McFarland, USA, the stakes are quite a bit higher in The Finest Hours, which tells the true story of a shipwreck and subsequent rescue off the coast of Massachusetts in 1952. But just how accurate is The Finest Hours ? The trailer declares the event depicted in the film as "the most daring rescue mission in U.S. Coast Guard history", which sounds awfully impressive. But is that really what it was?
The rescue in question is commonly known as the Pendleton Rescue, named after the SS Pendleton. That ship was one of two oil tankers, along with the SS Fort Mercer, that split in half during a nor'easter near Cape Cod on February 18, 1952. Boatswains Mate First Class Bernie Webber led a team of just three other Coast Guardsmen in a tiny life boat on a rescue mission of the Pendleton, and he and his crew saved the lives of 34 of the 35 men on board — in spite of their undersized boat and tiny crew. A separate rescue was mounted for the Fort Mercer, which was twenty miles away, but the movie largely focuses on the Pendleton.
The film sticks pretty closely to the facts in depicting the rescue of the Pendleton crew, thanks in large part to its source. The movie is technically based upon the book of the same name by authors Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias, who actually conducted interviews with Bernie Webber while he was still alive to get the real story. Chris Pine stars as Webber in the film, and there are several other members of the cast who are also portraying people who really took part in the rescue. Eric Bana portrays Daniel Cluff, who commanded both rescue operations from the shore at the Chatham Lifeboat Station. The three men who accompanied Webber on his mission also show up in the movie: Ben Foster plays Richard Livesey, Kyle Gallner is Andrew Fitzgerald, and John Magaro plays Ervin Maske. There's also Casey Affleck as Ray Sybert, the engineer on board the Pendleton who took charge after losing their captain and was considered responsible for keeping the crew alive until help arrived. Finally, the movie features Holliday Grainger in the role of Miriam, the woman whom Webber would eventually marry.
As far as Miriam is concerned, her romance with Webber is probably the most dramatized aspect of the movie. The bulk of their courtship is likely fictionalized to add more tension to his going out on the mission; as are her efforts to bring him back to shore under the motivation of marrying him. In real life, the two were already married at the time of the Pendleton Rescue, and Miriam was actually bedridden with the flu on the day of the incident. I'm fine with this embellishment though, because without her strong female presence and her scene-stealing subplot, the movie would basically feature zero women.
When it comes to the actual rescue mission, everyone involved in the film took serious steps to get it right, even going so far as to film at the actual Chatham Lifeboat Station in the middle of winter, and listening to taped interviews with Webber's account of the rescue. Pine was able to get down Webber's New England accent and speaking patterns thanks to these tapes, and the whole cast and crew were able to hear what happened directly from the source.
So with the exception of a little added dramatic romance, The Finest Hours largely tells the truth in its harrowing account of what, I think it's fair to say now, really was the most daring rescue mission in U.S. Coast Guard history.