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Finest hours for all heroes

OPENING TOMORROW in theaters here is the movie “The Finest Hours,” which tells the story of the dramatic and indeed very dangerous rescue operation involving the surviving crew of an oil tanker and a small coterie of Coast Guard regulars and volunteers aboard a tiny craft.

The movie is itself rather old-fashioned in its telling, and whatever special effects were involved in recreating the disaster that befell the SS Pendleton in 1952 in the winter seas off New England are subsumed in the service of the narrative.

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Amid a massive winter storm—moviegoers are advised to bring sweaters because the depiction of winter at sea is downright chilling in the physical sense—two oil tankers, the Pendleton and the SS Fort Mercer, are torn in half by the massive waves.

The filmmakers have chosen to focus on the fate of the crew aboard the Pendleton, even if the book on which the movie is based is about both ships, perhaps because the human drama involving the tanker crew and the Coast Guard troop that braved the seas to save them is indeed heightened and compelling.

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On the Pendleton is chief engineer Raymond Sybert (Casey Affleck) who has spent much of his life aboard ship in the depths of the engine room and is more at home communing with machinery than with an ornery crew. But in the face of impending death, Sybert is forced to explore unprecedented, bold and, indeed, counterintuitive measures to save what remains of the Pendleton and 32 crewmates.

Braving the angry waves, especially the perilous crossing of the treacherous sandbar, is the Coast Guard crew led by Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) who is still smarting from his failure a year before to rescue a ship in peril. He takes his crew of three on board a 36-foot motorized wooden boat, against the advice of his older colleagues but under pressure from his superior officer.

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INTERESTINGLY, the movie begins not with the storm or the start of the rescue but some months before, when Bernie meets Miriam (Holliday Grainger) and we discover not just the strong pull of attraction that draws them together, but also the powerful sense of self and loyalty of Miriam, who lends iron to Bernie’s good-natured but somewhat naive personality.

It is this love story within a heroic tale that pulls together all the disparate elements of the rescue and homecoming, a story so incredible one can hardly believe it took place in real life. All the characters in the movie, we realize, were real and led unremarkable, ordinary lives before and after those “finest hours.”

Braving “hurricane-force winds, 60-foot waves, frigid temperatures and zero visibility” the Coast Guard boat manages to locate the Pendleton on the sandbank where Sybert has grounded it for stability, and rescues 32 of the 33 men aboard. Even if Coast Guard regulations say its boat could safely fit only 12 people on board, it brings home all 36 to the harbor of Chatham, Massachusetts. It is to this day “the greatest small-boat rescue in the history of the US Coast Guard.”

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NO superheroes here, no superhuman feats. Only very human fear and doubt, but also daring and innovation, teamwork and dedication, faith and fortitude.

The movie feels like a throwback to all those movies of our childhood that quietly tell of ordinary humans doing extraordinary things, unaided by CGI and special effects to add gloss to their heroism. The pacing and telling picks up steam only when the boats are at sea, but director Craig Gillespie takes care always to situate the men’s bravery and commitment within the small-town values and loyalties that nurtured them.

“There was a sense of purity to that generation of men in that they often put others before themselves,” observes Gillespie. “And that’s what makes them so heroic.”

Only at the end of the movie do the filmmakers tell us that Bernie and Miriam—who finally wed after the Pendleton rescue nearly torpedoed their engagement and wedding plans—stayed together for 58 years, their togetherness cut short only after Bernie’s death some years ago. In the years after the honors heaped on them, and the obscurity to which they all willingly returned, the men involved in the rescue talked little of their heroics, or of the roles they played. Such a contrast to modern-day celebrities constantly in search of the limelight.

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MAYBE that’s what ties the events we just so recently commemorated—those four days at Edsa—to the rescue of the men aboard the Pendleton.

True, many of those who played major roles at the forefront of the protests and the events on the highway or elsewhere parlayed their prominence to political careers or visibility in other fronts. But majority of the teeming crowds on Edsa chose to slip back into lives of obscurity, back to the lives of quiet work and striving that they risked to confront the dictator and his minions.

But that is what true heroism is. To do what you think is right only because that is the full extent of your capabilities. To believe in a cause even if it means risking all. And then to cede your place in history to others better qualified or hungrier for fame and reward if only because they promise to do good by your faith in them.

We all don’t need to brave the stormy winter seas to rescue men stranded in a boat in distress. We don’t have to troop to an open highway, stand in the way of rumbling tanks, or walk beneath a shower of yellow confetti. All to prove we are the stuff that heroes are made of.

Maybe it’s enough to know that we can do all these if the times and the spirit call for it.

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TAGS: Coast Guard, EDSA, Film, New England, opinion, SS Pendleton, Storm, The Finest Hours
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