The Finest Hours: Mission and sacrifice

People organising community events often ask me to recommend a film that will appeal to a broad audience, without being offensive to any; and will stimulate discussion, without being too demanding for those who are not film-buffs. I now have a new film in my current recommendation list.

The Finest Hours tells the true story of 33 crew members lost at sea on the stern section of SS Pendleton, which had been broken in half by a dreadful storm; and the four US Coastguards who faced almost certain death as they set out on a seemingly impossible rescue mission. This is not a so-called ‘faith-based’ film but the parallels with mission undertaken by people of faith are clear, powerful, and inspirational.

Bernie Webber (played by Chris Pine), is the young coxswain of a lifeboat, struggling to live with the weight of his past failures, but prepared to give his life to save those who are lost at sea. Experienced fishermen warn him that any mission to reach the stricken Pendleton in such a dreadful storm means certain death, and that he should turn back. But, in words almost identical to those used by many faith-filled missionaries through the years he says ‘I’ve got to go out – they don’t say I’ve got to come back.’

In an experience matching those of many missionaries, he soon loses many of the physical resources he was reliant upon: his compass breaks, his radio fails, his engine is swamped – but still he presses on. And in a wonderful parallel with the missional calling to incarnational ministry that unites the missionary with those they seek to serve, when he eventually finds the ship he refuses to leave any of the 33 crew behind. Even though it overloads his lifeboat, he invites them all on board, saying ‘we all live, or we all die.’

This is not a deep and complex film that makes great demands upon the viewer. It doesn’t use a sophisticated script (such as Aaron Sorkin’s masterpiece Steve Jobs) although it is well written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson who last collaborated in the Oscar-nominated screenplay for The Fighter and bring the same mix of grittiness and emotion to this film. Nor does it use complex characterisation (such as that in Adam Mckay’s The Big Short) although it skilfully mirrors the character of Bernie Webber with Ray Sybert, the stricken ship’s engineer (played by Casey Affleck), both of whom are temperamentally insecure and reluctant to become heroic leaders. Nor does it use stupendous cinematography (such as that of The Revenant) although it employs state-of-the-art CGI to render the most powerfully immersive experience I have ever seen of a raging storm at sea.

Perhaps that’s why some critics damned The Finest Hours with faint praise as ‘a traditional rescue drama’. But that’s to miss the point. With its straightforward storyline, positive characters, and inspirational message, the film evokes wonderful memories of a by-gone era of filmmaking. It is not only set in the 1950s, it’s cinematic heart is there also. This is a true story, not a cinematic fantasy. It challenges all of us ordinary people to attempt extraordinary acts of self sacrifice.

I am thankful that Disney made this film. I know it doesn’t refer to the fact that the real Bernie Webber was a person of faith who, when he spoke about that rescue, said ‘the Lord’s hand was on my shoulder’. But films are meant to be art, not propaganda. And art is meant to make us feel so much that we can’t help but think.

The Finest Hours will certainly evoke powerful feelings and, with the right encouragement, it will help us all to think about our own response to the missionary call that we should offer our lives to reach and serve those who are lost in their own particular storms, whatever the cost we face.


Nick Pollard is co-founder of EthosEducation.org and EthosMedia.org which provide free downloadable resources to help school pupils and the general public to explore spiritual, moral, social and cultural issues through the latest films.

Categories: Blog, Ethics, History, Mission, Theology

1 reply »

  1. Visually spectacular. Some of these ocean scenes will have you on the edge of your seat. Chris Pine offers a convincing performance as the young Coast Guard officer asked to do the impossible. Nice work by Casey Affleck, Eric Bana, Michael Raymond-James, and many others as well. Yes, the plot is one we’ve seen many times before. This time it shines because the story happens to be true: Bernard Webber really did save 32 crew members from a wrecked tanker during a violent winter storm. It is still considered to be the greatest Coast Guard rescue in US history. If you enjoy true, nail-biting adventure movies, don’t miss The Finest Hours.

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