A fully immersive cinematic experience on an epic scale
The Finest Hours is an exquisitely well-crafted film about love and heroism, based on the remarkable true story of the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard, filled with nostalgia and adventure that immerses you emotionally and physically.
Transporting you to the heart of the action and creating a fully immersive cinematic experience on an epic scale, the film is directed by Australian filmmaker Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl and the highly acclaimed Showtime series The United States of Tara), and written by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson, based on the acclaimed non-fiction book of the same name by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias.
On February 18, 1952, a massive nor’easter struck New England, pummeling towns along the Eastern Seaboard and wreaking havoc on anything caught in its destructive path, including two 500-foot oil tankers.
The SS Pendleton and SS Fort Mercer, bound for Boston, Massachusetts and Portland, Maine, respectively, were both ripped in half by the storm, stranding their crews at sea.
The senior officer aboard the stern of the Pendleton, chief engineer Raymond Sybert (Casey Affleck), soon realizes it is up to him to take charge of the frightened crew and keep the ship afloat as long as possible.
The Coast Guard station in Chatham, Massachusetts was busy helping local fishermen protect their boats from the storm when they received word that the Fort Mercer was in trouble and orders coxswain Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) to quickly assemble a crew and take out the CG36500 lifeboat to look for survivors.
Webber and three men board the 36-foot motorized, wooden boat and set off on the perilous mission with bleak prospects, at best, and despite hurricane-force winds, 60-foot waves, frigid temperatures and zero visibility, miraculously locate the Pendleton and rescue 32 of its 33 men in the midst of the turbulent storm.
While The Finest Hours is packed with thrilling, larger-than-life action sequences, it is anchored by the prevailing theme that resonates throughout the story—the strength of the human spirit. “These young men knew exactly what they were getting into when they climbed into that tiny lifeboat,” says producer Dorothy Aufiero (The Fighter, Session 9). “They had the courage to go out there and put others’ safety first and do something incredible, and I find that truly inspirational.”
When the Boston-based filmmaker first read “The Finest Hours,” the book by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias that documented the incredible tale of the Coast Guard’s attempts to rescue survivors from two T2 oil tankers, she was shocked she had never heard about it before. While the SS Pendleton rescue was front-page news at the time, not everyone today is familiar with the story, including families of the men who were part of the rescue itself. “These guys just didn’t talk about it because to them, it was their job,” she explains.
Aufiero brought the project to producer Jim Whitaker (Cinderella Man, The Odd Life of Timothy Green), who felt an immediate connection to the story.
“I was born in Maryland but moved to Nova Scotia when I was 12 and my family lived in an eastern maritime town similar to Chatham, so I related to the story on a personal level,” he says. “I knew about the Coast Guard and about the lives of people who made their living on the water and always knew I wanted to tell a story about the people that I grew up with.”
They agreed that recreating the gallant efforts of these young men on the big screen was the perfect way to immortalize their story and put together a story treatment and sizzle reel incorporating vintage photos and archival footage of the actual events, which they brought to Disney.
Oscar nominees Scott Silver (8 Mile) and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson (The Fighter) completed a screenplay based on Sherman and Tougias’ book.
While the book tells the story of both tankers that split that fateful night, the screenplay focuses primarily on the Pendleton rescue and its two stories: the men on the tanker trying to survive on the outside chance that someone might come to find them, and the four young men who set out to rescue them.
Like Aufiero, Craig Gillespie was unfamiliar with the story when first sent the script, but he read it immediately, followed by the book, and was soon on board to direct.
“I really enjoyed how very true the writers stayed to the events and the timeline of when things occurred, which is almost unfathomable considering all that was going on out there in the ocean,” he says.
“Yes, it’s the story of the greatest small-boat rescue in Coast Guard history, but it also has all these great characters who really were unsung heroes. There was a sense of purity to that generation of men in that they often put others before themselves, and that’s what makes them so heroic.”
“Craig was absolutely the perfect guy to direct this film,” says Whitaker. “The movie is ultimately about a bunch of men going through this very difficult thing, but it’s also about their humanity and the emotionality of their actions, and Craig is particularly good at finding those emotional moments and drawing them out in this beautifully-subtle way.”
“The Finest Hours” celebrates man’s will as his greatest weapon. These young men with different levels of experience, or lack thereof, conquer their own fears and face some of the most destructive forces of nature imaginable to accomplish the impossible. “It’s a very simple story about these guys who have jobs to do. It wasn’t done for glory and there wasn’t a self-aggrandizing vibe to it: it was just men doing their job,” says Chris Pine. “There are no monsters, it’s just men against the ocean, and I think there’s something really exciting about seeing men and Mother Nature go at it because Mother Nature doesn’t care who you are or where you come from…she just does her thing.”
“It’s an amazing story,” says director Craig Gillespie, “and while there are a lot of thrills and the scale is huge, in the end it’s a very personal story.”
Adds Casey Affleck, “It’s a real story about real people and what they are capable of doing, and how saving their own lives and the lives of others helps them to understand and appreciate their own strengths.”
Meet the writers
Scott Silver (Screenwriter) co-wrote The Fighter and also wrote 8 Mile, and is currently working on a Jimi Hendrix movie with Paul Greengrass at Legendary Pictures.
Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson (Co-Screenwriters) have accrued an impressive number of film and television credits during their careers. In 2010, their screenplay for The Fighter, an action-drama based on the true story of Irish American boxer Micky Ward, garnered Oscar, BAFTA and WGA nominations. Their upcoming projects include: The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare, an action-drama based on the book by Damien Lewis; Boston Strong, a true story based on the book by Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge; A Spy Story, based on the GQ article My Father and Me: A Spy Story; and The Outpost, based on the best-selling book by Jake Tapper, which Sam Raimi will direct.
Casey Sherman (Author) has written eight books, including: Boston Strong, now in development as a major motion picture; Search for the Strangler; and Animal. He is a frequent guest on CNN and FOX News and is also a contributing writer for Esquire and is a sought-after guest speaker.
Michael J. Tougias (Author) is the author and co-author of 24 books, including: A Storm Too Soon; The Rescue of the Bounty; Overboard!; Fatal Forecast; So Close To Home; and Ten Hours Until Dawn.”He is a sought-after speaker who gives inspirational presentations to businesses and lectures on his books to groups across the country.
Bringing the characters to life
Audiences will be captivated by the story of the Coast Guard’s legendary maritime rescue, but the compelling characters brought to life on screen are exceptional in their own right
The humility and selflessness characteristic of those in the service of saving lives is truly notable, and the producers wanted to ensure that the actors cast could effectively convey those qualities on screen.
When Chris Pine is considering upcoming projects with which to become involved, a clear indication for the actor is a screenplay he can read in one sitting. With The Finest Hours, he couldn’t put it down. Pine, who has starred in the Star Trek films, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Into the Woods, among numerous others, appreciated the story’s simplicity and was drawn to the character of Petty Officer First Class Bernie Webber, the amiable captain of the CG36500 lifeboat, who becomes an unlikely hero.
“Bernie is sweet and quite gentle and is a man who hasn’t really found his voice yet. He grew up in a family of very strong men who went into battle and got their badges, and Bernie, having been too young to go to war, feels that he should have been there,” says Pine. “I like Bernie because he’s not encumbered by any cynicism or irony and he’s not slick and sharp…he’s not ‘big city.’ He’s a man from a different time.”
Webber led a similar rescue mission one year before the SS Pendleton disaster that was unsuccessful and haunted him. The William J. Landry, a fishing boat from New Bedford, Massachusetts, had been trapped at sea by a major squall and after three failed attempts to rescue the fishermen on board, the boat was destroyed, their crew never found. Webber’s confidence was shaken as a result.
“Because this is a true story you want to do justice to these men and what they accomplished…you want to pay tribute to them and hopefully capture the essence of who they actually were,” says Pine. “There’s this really great audio recording of Bernie telling the story many years after what happened that night, and just listening to his cadence and how he responded to the gentleman asking the questions you could tell that he had told the story many times and I got the feeling that he didn’t want to talk about it much anymore. In talking with people who knew Bernie I found that this was a great part of who he was—a quiet guy who took very seriously a job that he was very good at.”
Academy Award and Golden Globe nominee Casey Affleck (Interstellar), a native Bostonian, plays Raymond Sybert, the mid-level crew member aboard the Pendleton who suddenly becomes the man to whom everyone looks for guidance.
“The story really spoke to me about heroism and leadership,” he says. “These men were in a terrifying situation, yet they figured out a way to work together, ultimately bringing out the best in one another to accomplish the unthinkable.”
Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma, Contraband) is Richard Livesey, a veteran Coast Guard seaman who, despite his reservations about Bernie’s leadership abilities, volunteers to join him on the lifeboat.
The actor was honored to pay tribute to men who are responsible for saving human lives, and who do it with modesty, earnestness and good will.
“That’s part of the humility of this kind of service,” he says. “It’s not about patting yourself on the back; it’s about getting through it and doing the best job you can.”
“Ben is particularly great in this role because while he’s playing this tough guy, the role requires him to have these moments of great empathy, which Ben conveys through strength and by letting just a little bit of light in,” says Whitaker. “This is a movie about guys and leadership and how they are making these really difficult decisions with complex emotions and are dealing with it gracefully, and they’re all the stronger because of it.”
British actress Holliday Grainger (Cinderella) is Miriam, the headstrong fiancée of Bernie Webber who has no problem speaking her mind, especially when it comes to Bernie’s safety.
Miriam’s journey throughout the film is to be able to comprehend the world that Bernie comes from and to learn to be secure in the fact that marrying him means marrying into that world.
“The movie is as much about the rescue mission as it is about the challenges of a relationship and how one makes the decision to fully commit to be with someone,” says Whitaker, “and so in a way, what’s happening at sea is like a metaphor to what’s happening on shore, and Miriam is the anchor of that emotional journey, both for Bernie and herself.”
During production, Gillespie’s collaborative approach as a director helped empower the actors to create believable characters.
Pine explains, “Craig’s interaction with the actors and his style of directing gives the actors great latitude to explore. He really pushed me to figure out my character, who was this very innocent man and unlike anyone I had ever played before, and it was frightening, but I appreciate him pushing me.”
Each film Gillespie has directed thus far in his career is different from the next, either in genre, subject matter or tone, which Affleck viewed as an indication that the director was comfortable taking on new challenges.
“Craig stepped into this situation quite nicely,” Affleck explains. “When you read a script about a sinking ship you wonder how they are going to bring that to life on screen and make it feel real and still look spectacular, but Craig did it, and he always seemed so calm and collected.”
Adds Grainger, “This is an epic action movie which could have very easily been overly dramatized, but Craig was really trying to reign in Bernie and Miriam’s relationship so that it always felt real. He was going for that composed stoicism which is so appropriate for people living in a small fishing village with such harsh environmental conditions…there’s a kind of a strength and composure that you must have in order to survive, and he’s managed to capture that atmosphere in the film.”
From real life to reel life
The only surviving member of the rescue crew, Fitzgerald, was engaged by the producers in the early stages of development, as was Gouthro, to help ensure the facts and details were authentic.
“When the script was being written and it came to certain scenes where we needed specific details on what really happened, we had the ability to call and ask Andy,” says Whitaker. “This film is at its best when it is celebrating its authenticity, and we really tried to have everything be as real as possible.”
On November 10, 2014, both men visited the set to meet with the cast and crew and answer questions about their experience with the Coast Guard and observed filming of the scene where the Pendleton survivors descend the ladder into the lifeboat. “I was very impressed with the ship that they built,” says Gouthro. “Andy and I couldn’t believe how much it resembled the real Pendleton.”
“It was amazing for Andy and Gus to see us bringing their story to life,” remembers Aufiero. “Everyone on set knew they were in the presence of true heroes.”
“Some people still look at the Pendleton rescue as a suicide mission, but I never saw it like that,” says Fitzgerald, who is now 84 and lives with his wife in Colorado.
“Like we used to say back then, ‘You have to go out, but you don’t have to come back.’ Our job was to save people and that’s what we did.”
Gouthro is 83 and lives in Wrentham, Massachusetts.
“When people ask me about the Pendleton what I try to impress on them is that it really was no big deal to these guys,” he says. “Those four men went out and did their job. They didn’t like it…it’s not like they were having a good time out on that lifeboat, but it’s what they were told to do so they went out and did it.”
The production filmed at the Coast Guard station in Chatham where Daniel Cluff gave Webber the questionable assignment more than 60 years ago, which was especially poignant for the cast and crew. “There’s this great photo of Bernie and his men sitting at a table in the mess at the station that was taken that night after their return, and we filmed in that actual spot,” says Chris Pine. “It was a very profound experience.”
The production shot on the docks at Chatham’s Stage Harbor (which filled in for the Chatham Fish Pier as it looks nothing like it did in 1952) and at sea where the actual rescue took place.
It was also at the shipyards where a massive water tank holding 800,000 gallons of water was built. The tank, which measured 80 feet by 110 feet and was used to film scenes of the lifeboat’s voyage out to sea and the subsequent rescue of the Pendleton’s survivors, gave the production the ability to start and stop the waves, wind, rain and snow on command. “You would never be able to film in the ocean in a real squall…that would be absolutely impossible,” says Ross. “You have to be able to control the elements.”
“We wanted to create the most realistic environment possible for our actors, so we did a combination of exterior shoots at some of the actual locations and some in the water tanks on our stages too,” says Whitaker. “Approximately 70 percent of our water scenes were shot in the tanks, but the rest was in open water.”