Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 57 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 8; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.
…he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or addicted to wine or violent or greedy for gain; but he must be hospitable, a lover of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, and self-controlled.
He must have a firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy…
Director Craig Gillespie (helmer of one of my favorite films Lars and the Real Girl) new movie, adapted from a book by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman, is based on real events that transpired off Cape Cod in February 1952, culminating in what has been called the greatest rescue ever made by the U.S. Coastguard. It begins in November 1951 in Chatham, Mass as a romantic story. Shy Coast Guard sailor Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) meets in a café for the first time Miriam (Grainger), the telephone switchboard operator with whom he has been talking for several weeks on the phone. Jump to February 1952 when, while on a date at a dance hall, Miriam proposes to him. However, before Bernie can ask his Commander, Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana) at the Wellfleet Coast Guard station, for permission to marry a Nor’Easter has blown in. It is huge, like that in The Perfect Storm, so the anxious and inexperienced Commander, not allowing Webber even to voice his question, orders him instead to select a crew to tie down the boats moored nearby.
Out at sea aboard the old oil tanker Pendleton its chief engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) is extremely worried about the new welds of the ship. He can hear them humming, which suggests trouble ahead. He asks for permission from the captain to reduce their speed, and thus lessen the strain on the ship. Twice the captain refuses, and very soon the buffeting of the 70-foot towering waves splits the ship in two. The forward part with the captain and other crew members quickly sinks, whereas the stern portion remains afloat, but for how long?
Back at the Coast Guard station reports have come in of two ships breaking in apart, an unheard of occurrence in one day. Although one of the ships is closer to Wellfleet, it is still considered too far and the sea way too dangerous to attempt a rescue. Then one of the local fishermen, while out and about on the road hears a ship’s horn and catches a glimpse of the ship. His report is debated as to whether or not it is credible, but the Commander feels duty-bound to send out a rescue team despite the raging storm, so he orders Webber to choose three volunteers for the mission.
The locals, especially the seasoned fishermen, question among themselves the Commander’s decision because he is an outsider whom they believe does not know the local waters well. Trying to sail beyond the sandbar just beneath the outlet of their harbor would be suicide because of the multiple towering waves created by the bar and the wind. Others had died in the attempt when their boat was flipped clear over. The stoic Webber tells a couple of them, “It’s the Coast Guard. They say you gotta go out. They don’t say you gotta come back.” The worried Miriam, failing to reach her lover by phone, jumps into her car and drives through the storm to find out what is happening at the station.
As the exciting action unfolded (suspenseful even though we know the rescue was successful), I came to perceive that the twin segments depicting Webber and his men and that of Sybert and his surviving crew members are two stories about leadership and the qualities it requires for good results. Hence my citation above of the apostle Paul or one of his associates concerning the criteria for leadership in the church. The Scripture is about those needed by a man (remember the originally egalitarian church was patriarchal by this time) to become a bishop. In our film it is that of sailors needed to head up a mission, one of rescue, and the other of survival.
Had there been time for reflection, neither man would have been first choice to lead their fellow sailors. The locals considered the shy Webber “a good man,” but hardly a leader. One even taunts him as less than a man because his girl had initiated the proposal of marriage. However, because of his rank, the Commander sends Webber to select the rescue boat crew. Sybert was actually unpopular with his crewmates. At first they were about to follow the demands of the loudest of the lot, D.A. Brown (Michael Raymond-James) who was yelling that they must climb immediately into the lifeboats before the stern sinks. Fortunately one of the older members, knowing and respecting the engineer, is able to get the men to listen to Sybert. The scene in which the latter captures their attention by peeling a hard-boiled egg while explaining their situation is priceless.
Both men remain calm, partly because they are confident in their skills. Webber could have followed the advice of an old fisherman concerned for his welfare—sail around the roiled waters of the inner harbor for a while and then return and say you got lost. However, a man of integrity, Webber refuses to do that because of the oath he had taken to guard and protect. (One of his men also suggest this.) Webber knows the waters and is able to switch speeds at just the right moment when they pass over the sandbar at the harbor’s entrance. Their boat is almost caught up and capsized by the series of huge waves, but he manages to pilot it through into the outer sea, much to the relief of the other three sailors.
On the Pendleton Sybert quietly explains to his fellow crewman the three choices they have. Launch the lifeboat and be drowned almost immediately. Stay with the stern and wait for rescue, even though they have no radio to alert others of their location. Or rig a tiller and try to run the stern aground the shoals that must lie off the coast. This latter would be difficult and risky, but it would buy them more time. He estimates that it will be 4 or 5 hours until the water rises in the ship high enough to shut down their motors, thus robbing the pumps of power. When at one point a while later it looks like the men will try to lower the lifeboat, Sybert rushes up, hatchet in hand, and chops the ropes attached to the small craft before anyone can climb in. Falling into the sea it is immediately hit by a large wave that dashes it to smithereens, thus confirming his warning. Accepting the engineer’s leadership despite the objections of the loudmouth, the men scurry about to perform their assigned tasks.
Each crew faces terrible obstacles. The rescue boat is so small (36 feet) that as they boarded it the volunteer who had been serving on a lightship sees it and plaintively says, “Please tell me we’re taking that boat to a bigger boat.” But they are not, and so at times the small craft is so engulfed by what are truly mountainous waves that it is submerged like a submarine. To make matters worse they lose their compass. How are they to locate the stricken vessel without it? The crew wants to turn back from what everyone ashore had called a “suicide mission.” Concerned about the men aboard the tanker, Webber refuses.
Aboard the Pendleton various crises arise, such as the impact of a wave that breaks their jury-rigged tiller. Refusing to give in to despair, Sybert leads the efforts to repair things and staunch the leaks. The fearful men go about their tasks, as well as offering up prayers. They keep sounding the ship’s horn in the hope that it will be heard.
After considerable up and down buffeting by wind and waves, Webber catches the sound of the tanker’s horn. Ordering their search light turned on, they are amazed to see that the stricken tanker is aground just a few hundred yards from them. They call it luck, but people of faith will regard it as more than that. But time is short because the powerful wind and waves are gradually moving the vessel off the shoal. Gazing up at rails, the rescuers are taken aback by the number of stranded sailors—over 30 of them—and the small size of their boat. As one by one the men climb down a portable ladder and drop—some into the sea itself and others caught by the arms of two of the Coast Guardsmen—the Coast Guardsmen become concerned that the rescue craft is too small to accommodate everyone. Leave while they can and then return for the remaining ones, Webber is advised. It’s then we hear his refusal contained in the trailer, “We all live or we all die.” One other leadership quality I should mention that we see in both men: they do not deny or cover up their fear, but they push it into the background as they deal with each new crisis that arises.
Bolstered by great special effects that convey effectively the immense power of the storm, as well as by a talented ensemble cast, the film is a rip roaring sea adventure, as well as a film that could be used to teach leadership. Chris Pine as Webber and Casey Affeck both show well the quiet, unassuming demeanor of ordinary guys rising to greatness when circumstances demand it.
The script by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson, moves back and forth not only between the rescuers and rescued, but also involves Miriam ashore rushing to the station for news of her fiancé; ordered out by the Commander because of her demands; and interacting with a sailor’s wife who picks her up after her car becomes stuck in a snow drift. One wonders how much of this was added for dramatic interest, but it soon becomes an important part of the story when the storm knocks out the region’s electrical power. What happens next, vital to the rescuers finding their way home is as stirring for me as that scene in Rocky when our hero at last runs up the steps of the Art Institute and faces the city and the rising sun in triumph. If you are not noticing a tear or too and a lump in your throat at that moment, then you are, in Cool Hand Luke’s phrase, “A hard case.”
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Feb. 2015 issue of VP.