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What Disney's The Finest Hours teaches us about mission and sacrifice

Nick Pollard reviews Disney's latest film: The Finest Hours

People organizing church 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 (in UK cinemas now) 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 Christian mission 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 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 Christian calling to incarnational ministry that unites us with those we 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 destined for Oscar glory. It doesn’t have 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 have a deep complexity of characterisation (such as that in Adam Mckay’s The Big Short) although it skillfully 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 have stupendous cinematography (such as that of The Revenant) although it uses 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 Christian 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 God’s 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.

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