LOS ANGELES (Christian Examiner) – Bernie Webber in 1952 was a U.S. Coast Guardsman, unsure of himself and looking for his place in life, when providence intervened.
At least, that's how he later described that day – the day when he and three men on a tiny Coast Guard boat rescued 32 helpless souls trapped on board a doomed ship that had literally split in two off the coast of Massachusetts.
To this day it is considered the most amazing small boat rescue in Coast Guard history, having taken place during a dangerous nor'eastern storm with 60-foot waves and frigid waters. Coast Guard veterans thought he and his crew were on a suicide mission and likely would not return.
Their incredible story is the subject of a film that opens this weekend, "The Finest Hours" (PG-13), based on a book by the same name. Chris Pine plays Webber, who was the son of a Baptist minister.
"Bernie would go on to say that it was providential, that it was divine providence," Jim Whitaker, one of the film's producers, told the Christian Examiner. "Because it was so unbelievable what they achieved, it is hard not to agree with him."
Webber, who steered that rescue boat, died in 2009 at the age of 80, following a life in which he received the Gold Lifesaving Medal and saw a Coast Guard cutter named after him.
The Christian Examiner spoke with Whitaker about Webber and the movie. Following is a transcript, edited for clarity:
Christian Examiner: What attracted you to this story?
James Whitaker: It's an incredible story of hope and resiliency and fate. And I loved the selfless and humble nature of Bernie and his men. They were men who were given a job to do, and decided to do it and do the right thing. And they never gave up. When I first read the book, I thought it was an amazing story, and then it just kept getting more amazing as I saw what they accomplished. It's a great movie story, and it's always best when it's true. These were just regular guys who just did the right thing, and I love those qualities about them.
CE: So what we see on screen – the overview of the story – is that what really happened?
Whitaker: We had to make a couple of adjustments, but what you see on screen is true. We didn't have to change a lot, because what happened was so amazing in its own right. It's a story of bravery and courage, and it's a very human story about a guy who was wrestling with his own demons and in truth really trying to figure out how to overcome them, and having faith that he was meant to be where he was in that life, to do the thing that he did.
CE: There are quite a few faith elements in this film. So some of these men, including Bernie, were men of faith who believed that this was their moment in time?
Whitaker: Yes, Bernie did believe that it was his moment in time. Part of the back story – in addition to having failed at a rescue attempt a year earlier – was that his dad was a Baptist minister. Bernie joined the Coast Guard at a young age when he was about 16, and his brothers were all in the military and serving in some capacity. It was during [the rescue] that he believed there was a guiding hand over his efforts and his success. It was very much a part of that story and of our telling of that story.
CE: The scenes on the sea were amazing. What all went into making that?
Whitaker: It starts with the director Craig Gillespie. I can remember seeing him after we met and we began to work on the project. He would be in his office, designing every wave and every wave direction – where it would go. He had such a clear idea of how he wanted the characters to move through these spaces. And a close friend of mine, Tim Sarnoff, runs MPC – the visual effects company – and they committed very early on to the idea of making the water the best water that we've ever seen in visual effects. They had an incredible group of artists that dedicated themselves to the project, and we went through a process of months and months of reviews to get to a place where we would not settle for anything less than a perfect immersive experience.
"The Finest Hours" is rated PG-13 for language and intense sequences of peril. It contains no sexuality and very little violence, although it does have about a dozen coarse words (no f-words; God's name is abused about five times).
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