Heroism vs. Existentialism

Chris Pine in The Finest Hours (Disney)
The Finest Hours, Aferim!, and Dirty Grandpa all affirm humanity in sometimes grim circumstances.

With The Finest Hours, heroism returns ​to movies. True heroism — not the sentimental distortion of human duty and obligation that people in the news media exploit to prove their sensitive appreciation, but rather the individual exercise of principle and sacrifice that never asks to be thanked. Heroism as a forgotten virtue.

Based on a 1952 event in Wellfleet, Mass., the film dramatizes a self-effacing Coast Guardsman, Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), and his three-man crew, who risked their lives to save several dozen seamen on the S.S Pendleton, an oil tanker that split in half during a blizzard. The Finest Hours feels great because it is modest. Officer Webber and the Pendleton’s engineer, Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), are paralleled in their modesty. This makes the film a study in humanism as well as citizenship. It differs from the humble-bragging of American Sniper and 13 Hours, whose characters’ exploits presuppose heroism. Webber and Sybert are not Everymen; they’re quiet, casually mocked types, which fits this film’s B-movie premise.

Though adapted from the book-length account by Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman, this is not an “official” epic blockbuster naval history. Instead, director Craig Gillespie and screenwriters Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy use Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory (perfect for a film that’s better than Titanic) to relay details of seaworthy American character. The Finest Hours is a nostalgic cultural memoir as much as an action film. Webber’s engagement to a chubby Cape Cod phone operator, Miriam (Holliday Grainger), recalls the mores of an earlier America, just as Sybert’s shipboard professionalism personifies an individual integrity that is now considered outmoded.

Who would expect that the diversity-pledged Disney corporation would produce a film that is so beautifully conservative in its pop values? Gillespie’s previous indie work (the appalling Lars and the Real Girl) did not prepare me for his proficiency here. (The cross-section image of the Pendleton ghost ship is shocking.) This is the kind of set-piece, action-detail filmmaking that needs craft — and that develops an attentive director’s craft. Even when the characterizations are not fully explained, they suggest appealing humanity — as when Miriam presses Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana) to bring Webber back to safety, or Webber and Sybert both defy their faithless shipmates and persevere. (The performances by Pine, Affleck, and Bana are more affecting than I expected; their capsized careers are rescued here. Note the scenes where Pine indulges his reticence, Affleck calmly instructs his shipmates, and Bana swears to duty.)

Each character in The Finest Hours endures an existential crisis — in the Hemingway–Camus–Peckinpah sense: Webber second-guessing his fear, Sybert defying calamity, Miriam waiting out her helplessness in a snowdrift, Cluff’s lonely persistence. But this warm-hearted film justifies the term “existential,” which has recently become a Beltway cliché. (“Existential threat” is the new “draconian.” It’s how politicians self-consciously proclaim that they are serious about an issue). The word “existential” refers to man-in-time-space-and-nature, and The Finest Hours confronts nature without nihilism. (In that shot of the halved Pendleton, an awesome sequence of the dark seas is juxtaposed with townspeople turning on their automobile headlights to form a spiritual beacon.) This film’s existentialism is like patriotism; it’s the personal American identity that we all share, in spite of our differences.

There is genuine respect for military scruples that confounds Hollywood’s usual disdain.

Despite its secular, politically correct basis, the film shows Miriam noticing a widow’s Psalm 23 verse next to a memorial photo of a dead seaman. Such even-handedness won’t win plaudits for The Final Hours, and yet it advances film culture’s popular effect. There is genuine respect for military scruples that confounds Hollywood’s usual disdain. Webber affirms, “Rules say you gotta go out, it doesn’t say you gotta come back,” as he dutifully risks his life. Such pragmatism is better stated than in Michael Bay’s 13 Hours, which presupposes patriotic virtue. Those who strain to make 13 Hours be the propaganda they want/need don’t understand the meaning of movie bravery. Their interpretations are as politically obtuse as Steven Spielberg has been in his recent, left-leaning, “official” historical films, Lincoln and Bridge of Spies. When Spielberg takes a look at the trenchant, effective, restrained excitement of The Finest Hours, he’s gonna wish he had made it.

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Aferim! is the opposite of a cultural celebration. This Romanian–Bulgarian–Czech co-production, written and directed by Radu Jude, uses startling, hilarious misanthropy to portray Eastern Europe’s immoral legacy — a hapless, dissolute, pusillanimous culture that has bequeathed the region a cynical present. Sheriff Costandin (gruff, noble Teodor Corban) and his young lackey hunt down a runaway gypsy in 1835, traversing the countryside in this epic social satire based on inherited proverbs and grandiloquent black-and-white imagery by Marius Panduru. “And we, the living, thought ourselves dead and wandered around, dazed,” Costandin begins.

#related#The contrast of human pettiness and visual elegance makes the film captivating and tense. Costandin’s aphorisms and homilies demonstrate the human capacity to rationalize terror, pain, selfishness. This profane folk tale boasts many creatively obscene oaths; the absurdist ripostes convey a sense of political superstition. Imagine if John Ford had directed Blazing Saddles, and it turned into Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night. Jude’s Aferim! – the title translates as “Bravo!” — pays ironic tribute to Romania’s self-loathing, which goes back before Ceauşescu’s dictatorship and, apparently, hasn’t yet ended. Costandin advises the future: “God even looks after worms, and we can’t look after each other. This world will stay as it is — you can’t change it, try as you might. We live as we can, not as we want.” (Tarantino might have been trying for something this complex in The Hateful Eight but was too juvenile to achieve it.)

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Some notes on the evolved role of military characters after seeing the bawdy farce Dirty Grandpa: Robert De Niro plays a widowed Special Forces vet who served in Vietnam and Iraq (“I taught insurgents behind enemy lines”) and who wants one last sexual fling. It’s a better — believably raunchy — version of the grim, right-wing cop he played in those terrible Focker movies. He’s Rodney Dangerfield as a lusty Green Beret boasting the unit’s motto, De Oppresso Liber. There’s a gradual, respectful normalizing of military experience in recent movies, as the casualties and realities of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars become undeniable. The same conscientiousness De Niro showed in his underappreciated CIA film, The Good Shepherd, can be sensed here, despite Dirty Grandpa’s farcical premise. “Bet you never thought you’d 69 a girl because of the Patriot Act,” this lecherous male version of Auntie Mame tells his straitlaced grandson, played by Zac Efron, who’s so pretty, opposite De Niro’s gnarly vet, he’s practically a life force — the thing military men fight to protect. A burlesque like Dirty Grandpa means to “liberate the oppressed” and does so in a low-comedy way. Ignore the bluenose critics who sharpened their dentures on this movie; ironically, they’re the same fools who swallow drivel like The Hunger Games. The way De Niro’s karaoke version of Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” ends with an irreverent “peace-out” restores all-American, service-comedy brotherhood.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.


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