2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang
I’ll never understand Hollywood.
The actual account of one brave Coast Guard crew’s mission to rescue survivors of the maimed T2 oil tanker SS Pendleton, undertaken during a raging nor’easter off the New England coast on Feb. 18, 1952, is the stuff of unbelievable legend: a saga of bravery, luck and utterly amazing persistence.
Give it to Disney, and it turns into an overcooked, eye-rolling, melodramatic mess.
Granted, the ocean-bound storm sequences are awesome and persuasive, the depiction of the crippled SS Pendleton — literally torn in half by the storm — grimly unsettling on all sorts of levels.
The problem is with character behavior and interpersonal dynamics, as concocted by scripters Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson. Rarely have so many people behaved so childishly, so stupidly, so TV soap opera-ishly.
And so bewilderingly.
For starters, it’s impossible to get a bead on our primary hero, Coast Guard Boatswain’s Mate First Class Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), who overplays a blend of shyness, uncertainty and self-censure to the point that he seems incapable of completing a sentence, let alone piloting a vessel. A failed previous mission apparently has left him riddled with guilt, but that scarcely explains the degree to which he’s belittled, teased and dismissed by both the local veteran fishermen, and his Coast Guard colleagues at the Chatham, Mass., Lifeboat Station.
Then there’s his feckless boss, Daniel Cuff (Eric Bana), assumed to be incompetent because his accent brands him as having come from “somewhere else.” The accusation likely has merit, because Bana plays the role with utter bewilderment, as if Cuff doesn’t even understand how to use the station equipment. We’re supposed to believe this?
But nobody can top the childish histrionics of Holliday Grainger’s Miriam, who frequently behaves like a 5-year-old having a temper tantrum. A confrontation between Miriam and Cuff is so howlingly awful, orchestrated so poorly by director Craig Gillespie, that it must be seen to be disbelieved.
We can’t really fault Grainger, who’s obviously limited to her scripted lines, and the “guidance” from Gillespie. Miriam nonetheless remains the worst “devoted gal left behind” that I’ve seen in many, many years.
Nor is the laughably purple melodrama limited to those on land. On board the remnants of the SS Pendleton, as the surviving crew members try to stay alive in the storm-tossed stern section, we’re frequently subjected to the whining, obstreperous objections of the “token naysayer,” crewman D.A. Brown (Michael Raymond-James).
I don’t doubt that the terrified men likely argued about the best method of staying afloat long enough to increase their chances of rescue, but Raymond-James’ petulant, sneering contempt is so embroidered that he should’ve been given a curled mustache and dubbed Snidely Whiplash.
It’s truly infuriating. We can tell, even in this badly flawed adaptation of the nonfiction book by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman, that this should be a tense and triumphant saga ... and yet Gillespie frequently works against his film’s best interests. This isn’t his genre — he’s best known for quirky comedy (Lars and the Real Girl) and Disney’s recent “true-life” sports saga, Million Dollar Arm — and he thrashes about with the clumsiness of this story’s Daniel Cuff.
The prologue actually is rather sweet, as Bernie and Miriam meet for the first time, quickly suffused by the glow of love at first sight. They’re adorable in the conservative manner of an early 1950s courting couple, Pine’s worshipful blue eyes nicely matched by Grainger’s mildly saucy smile.
A few months pass; Miriam asks him to get married, a detail we’d have thought private, but which inexplicably makes the rounds at the Lifeboat Station, furthering Bernie’s apparent emasculation. Ah, but this is the night of the storm in question, and the SS Pendleton already has been rent in two.
In point of fact, two T2 oil tankers broke in half in the waters off this New England coast on this night, the SS Pendleton and SS Fort Mercer; both were WWII surplus ships that never should have been kept in service. Details of the SS Fort Mercer rescue efforts are relegated to radio calls; this film concentrates solely on the SS Pendleton.
With the storm approaching hurricane force, Cuff orders Bernie to take a tiny, 36-foot CG 36500 motor lifeboat out to the SS Pendleton; the bulk of the Lifeboat Station men look the other way as our hero requests volunteers. (Sadly, this detail is accurate.) Bernie eventually casts off with just three men: Engineman Third Class Andy Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner), and Seamen Richard Livesey (Ben Foster) and Ervin Maske (John Magaro).
The issue, which has so terrified all the others, is the certainty that the massive waves will turn the little boat into kindling, killing all on board, when it attempts to cross over the offshore sand bar that surrounds their little community.
Meanwhile, on board the SS Pendleton, first assistant engineer Ray Sybert (sulky Casey Affleck) — now the de facto senior officer — is doing his best to hold both the crew and the ship together. When it comes to the latter, ol’ Ray is more resourceful than Star Trek’s Scottie. (Indeed, early on — pre-wreck — Sybert practically says, “I dinnae know if the engines can take much more, captain!”)
Affleck softly mumbles his way through the entire film, although he does excel at the well-timed half-smile.
Scripters Silver, Tamasy and Johnson grasp for parallel structure here: Both Bernie and Sybert are soft-spoken; both struggle to win the respect of their comrades. And in both cases, it’s a false premise; it’s blindingly obvious that each is incredibly capable.
Back on land, Miriam amplifies her credentials as a total nitwit by flouncing off into the storm, sans coat; running her car into a snow bank; and then sitting quietly, presumably waiting to freeze to death. One wonders if she parachuted in from the Moon, those few months back; how could she live in such a region, and be so bone-ignorant about it???
And yet later, following the community’s loss of power, Miriam is the only person clever enough to shine car headlights out to sea, as a land beacon? As if the locals wouldn’t have been doing that for decades, under such circumstances?
It’s impossible to believe that Silver, Tamasy and Johnson were nominated for an Oscar, back in 2011, for the vastly superior script for The Fighter. I can only assume they’ve taken stupid pills in the meanwhile.
Pine does his best as Bernie, but the aw-shucks routine doesn’t come easily to an actor better known for hard-charging roles such as Jack Ryan and James T. Kirk. Foster, Gallner and Magaro handle themselves well, as Bernie’s reluctant but equally determined comrades; they, at least, look and feel like actual human beings.
Graham McTavish is solid as Sybert’s muscular right-hand man; Abraham Benrubi’s “Tiny” Myers cheerfully maintains the shaky morale, as the SS Pendleton’s cook. Keiynan Lonsdale also does well as Eldon, one of the doomed ship’s juniors.
Bana, sadly, merely embarrasses himself in a thoroughly thankless role. As for poor Grainger ... no more need be said.
The technical credits are terrific. Editor Tatiana S. Riegel keeps the ocean action taut and tense — despite Gillespie’s frequent efforts to sabotage the result — and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe deftly blends his live water footage with the impressively real visual effects. It’s not easy to frame all these characters under such waterlogged conditions, so that we’re able to keep track of everybody; Aguirresarobe is to be congratulated.
But the exceptional behind-the-scenes work can’t surmount the often ludicrous dialog and sappy tone. Ultimately, this film goes down with the rest of the SS Pendleton.