Regardless the system involved, there is an order to societies no matter where they are located or who comprises them. Sometimes this order is democratic, sometimes it is undemocratic, but order is necessary to preserve the functioning of society. However, in any situation and any society the order can change. The film The Finest Hours demonstrates how quickly societies can reorder themselves during times of emergency.
The Finest Hours is the fictionalized version of the 1952 rescue of the SS Pendleton, an oil tanker sailing off the coast of Massachusetts. The Pendleton finds herself at sea during an intense winter storm. In the opening scenes, Ray Sybert, the Pendleton’s senior engineer, is seen toiling in the bowels of the ship, attempting to maintain the her safety in the storm. He sends an imploring message to the ship’s captain to slow down the Pendleton’s sailing speed to ride out the storm. Sybert’s pleas are unheeded and the Pendleton maintains a higher speed, although Sybert clearly realizes that the captain might have signed the death warrant for the ship. Those who work with Sybert in the ship’s engines not only understand his reasons for wanting less speed but also can see manifestations of the pressure the ship is under, especially along the seams of the hull. During a particularly intense patch of sea, the hull splits along these seams, partially flooding the lower deck. Sybert decides to slow the ship’s speed regardless of the captain’s orders – a significant maritime taboo. Soon Sybert learns that there will be no reprimand for him – the Pendleton has split in two, with the captain and the communications tower capsizing and sinking into the night before the eyes of Sybert and the remaining crew.
After witnessing the doomed half of the Pendleton sink, the crewmembers come to the realization that they are alone in the Atlantic. Sybert returns to the engines, knowing that a flood in the engine room will disable all power to the remaining portion of the Pendleton and cause it to sink as well. He is brought out of the engine room when a fight occurs between crewmembers who are panicked. One crewmember tries to convince the crew that the best course of action is to abandon ship and take to the lifeboats – to a clear-headed person a course of action that would be fatal given the size of the lifeboats and the size of the waves. Another crewmember cautions against this, maintaining that the best course of action is to stay on the Pendleton and try to find help. Until this point Sybert is regarded as the ship’s recluse, who stays below deck and would rather spend time with the ship than with his crewmates. However, he emerges from the engine room to mediate the fight and explains to the crew why taking to the lifeboats would be fatal and how to save themselves – by staying on the Pendleton and trying to steer her onto the shore, essentially beaching the ship and waiting for help. Sybert’s argument convinces the crew and from that point on he becomes the de facto captain of the remains of the Pendleton.
At the same time, the nearest Coast Guard station, at Chatham, Massachusetts, becomes aware that the Pendleton has broken in two and that another oil tanker, the SS Fort Mercer in the vicinity has suffered a similar fate. News of the Fort Mercer reaches the Coast Guard station at Chatham first, and the commanding officer of the station sends what appears to be a seasoned team of Coast Guard members to assist the survivors. A debate ensues over the best route to sea in the storm since accessing the sea from Chatham means either going over or around the Chatham bar, a notoriously difficult area for sailors to traverse. The seasoned team decides to go around the bar – a longer route but seemingly more prudent in the storm.
The main voice advocating a course directly over the Chatham bar belongs to Bernie Webber, a younger officer in the Coast Guard team. Webber is a Cape Cod local, genial, soft-spoken and shy, who is liked by his fellow Coast Guard members but not necessarily respected as a leading voice. He also is still suffering from the memory of a previous rescue attempt during a similar storm in which he was unable to reach the crew of a ship in distress before the ship sunk. Indeed, he has a visible reminder of this failure every day since Richard Livesey, one of his fellow Coast Guard officers, had a brother on the doomed ship and is clearly resentful of Webber.
With the seasoned crew assisting the Fort Mercer, Webber finds himself presented with the opportunity to save those onboard the Pendleton. His crewmembers consist of Livesey and two young sailors, including one who was new to the area. Webber still maintains that the best path is over the bar and, despite his ill feelings about his brother’s death, Livesey agrees. Before they set out, a group of old fishermen pull Webber aside and tell him that there would be no shame in saying he tried to get over the bar but could not. He thanks them, says he will keep the advice in mind and then leaves with no intention of playing the coward. Once at sea, Livesey has the ability to watch Webber captain a ship and understands that he would have done anything possible to save the ship on which Livesey’s brother died. Throughout the course of their ordeal to get to the Pendleton, Livesey comes to regard Webber as not only a good man but also a true captain, changing the dynamics of their relationship and cementing Webber as a leader.
What ensues is a nightmarish trip to the Pendleton that constantly threatens to capsize the ship, while on the Pendleton the conditions are constantly deteriorating. On both ships the unwitting captains struggle to maintain their vessels and their crews as well as in their own confidence as leaders. Each faces the realization that he might have led his crew into false hope of survival and each fears that he might not be able to achieve his goals. And yet, these fears are allayed for Webber when his ship cross the Chatham bar and reach the Pendleton and for Sybert when a rescue ship arrives to save his crew from the increasingly lifeless frame of the Pendleton. Ultimately, Webber breaks the rules and takes the entire remaining crew of the Pendleton onboard his ship although it was designed to hold far less people. He also disregards a direct order to attempt to take the Pendleton’s crew further out to sea to liaise with another ship, instead realizing that the safest course is to head back to shore. All onboard make it to Chatham safely.
The Finest Hours presents portraits of two men who under normal circumstances were content in their quiet lives as part of a larger apparatus – the Pendleton and the Coast Guard. It is clear that Sybert and Webber are good men and take their jobs very seriously but neither of them is a leader and the society in which they work does not seem them as such. For each of them there is a higher authority in the chain of command that must be followed even if he disagrees with it.