Missing in action: The Finest Hours sails in the wrong direction

Less-than engaging. While this is based on a true story about the most outrageous coast-guard rescue in the 20th century, this adaptation did not deliver the kind of dramatic cinematic experience that should accompany an intense life-threatening story like this. It’s slow (rather methodical), and the dialogue at large is weak and seems to be missing in action. Squeaky clean and neat-to-a-flaw, the narrative is less-engaging. Sadly, A-list actors like Chris Pine, and Casey Affleck didn’t have much to work with, and the ending was nothing short of a cheat.

Admittedly, the film exhibits some true-to-life scenarios that were reflective of life in the early 1950’s:  Innocence in love Bernie Webber and Miriam (Chris Pine and Holiday Grainger), where Webber is so shy Miriam proposes. Both Webber, the captain of the small Coast Guard Vessel that is sent out to rescue the survivors of the the S.S. Pendelton and Pendelton’s chief engineer, Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) show very little expression (internalize), while making moment-by-moment crucial decisions.

“Bringing a wooden 36-foot motor lifeboat alongside a freighter in mountainous seas is near impossible without placing your crew in grave danger. Yet, that is exactly what Webber and his crew did. With the light from the small searchlight and timing the movement of the swells as they rolled through, Webber and his crew approached the stern of the floundering vessel more than 30 times to extract the survivors, one by one.” (60th Anniversary of the Pendelton Rescue)
According to the “actual” story, Webber had no idea what he was doing, nor did he really expect to live through the attempted rescue.  When the compass is lost, and the boat is tossed around in the violent ocean, Webber is left to instinctively find the ship that had split in two.  One of the biggest issues in the film is with Webber’s character.  He doesn’t ever change.  There is no apparent arch, nor does he display any sense of emotion during his journey — a journey that should reveal a fierce internal and external battle for survival in impossible circumstances.  However, Webber does not show this kind of raw emotion, but very methodically finds his way through a treacherous sandbar and out to a treacherous sea in search of survivors.
written by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman, Bernie Webber was the son of a preacher, who did not want to follow in his father’s footsteps.  In fact, he just as he was about to run away from school, a childhood friend crashed his father’s car, and was looking for a place to hide. Webber helped him out by hiding him in his room, and stealing food from the cafeteria for him to eat. While the boys were caught, they didn’t ever suffer the consequences, because they returned back to Milton (their hometown).  According to the story, “The Reverend Bernard A. Webber struggled to understand the actions of his wayward son as young Bernie quit school and continued to drift.” Quite a different picture from the shy, reserved, obliging Coast Guard Captain, who seems intimidated by his superior.

Probably the best two things about this film are the tanker’s engineer, Casey Affleck, a character that was completely fictionalized,  and the insanely turbulent storm visuals created by cinematographer, Javier Aguirresarobe.  It’s man vs. the sea, and those moments are clearly defined visually on the screen with special effects, and a 3D option, that really isn’t necessary.  Indeed, the cinematography is well-played, for those “few” moments can leave you unnerved and holding onto your seat, in fact those moments somewhat carry the story, but that only lasts so long.

The ending is also problematic.  Once the men are successfully rescued, the trip home is a piece of cake.  While there are dozens of cars beaming their headlights toward the dark, stormy ocean, there is no real celebration of their arrival.  The men just methodically get off the boat and go home…men that also should exhibit some froze-bite and/or hypothermia.

According to history: “USCGC YAKUTAT’S MOTOR SURFBOAT RESCUES SURVIVORS FROM BOW OF SS FORT MERCER: Coast Guard rescuers in a motor surfboat carry blanket-wrapped master of tanker SS FORT MERCER, Captain Frederick C. Paetzal (far side), and purser, Edward Turner, Jr., to safety of the Coast Guard Cutter YAKUTAT.  The two survivors were plucked from the water after they jumped from the tanker’s bow section.  Captain Paetzel suffered from pneumonia and frost bitten hands and feet.”

In the final analysis, this film, though somewhat entertaining, is another adaptation that isn’t sailing in the right direction. When you use elements of nature being used as the sole catalyst to drive a story forward, it doesn’t work. Those elements are only a “part” of the action. The audience must connect to the lead characters, and that is an issue with this film, especially since the two lead characters are men that merely internalize their stress and decision-making process.  Perhaps, sticking more to the “real” story would have been a better option. Fictionalizing a “true” story can be risky.

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Official USCG Photo No. 5840; 2-18-52(2); Photographer unknown.

Coast Guardsmen from Station Chatham rescue 32 survivors from the SS Pendleton. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Richard C. Kelsey.

CG-36500 returns to the pier with  survivors of the tanker Pendleton after the rescue at sea. Photo by Richard C. Kelsey U.S. Coast Guard photo by Richard C. Kelsey.

 

How close is the film to history?  Check it out:

http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/finest-hours/

 

 

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The Element of Structure in How Plays Work: It Is All About Time

The shape or structure of a play is equal to the story, and without the organization of the narrative into space and time, the meaning will be lost.  In David Edgar’s book, How Plays Work, he insightfully addresses the importance of structure and reveals why the plot is expressed through two structural categories:  Plays that are written in linear time and those who disrupt it.  While Edgar does not shift away from Aristotle’s belief that plot is paramount, and it must be composed of a beginning, middle and end, he does relay some varied approaches with the utilization of time and space in a refreshing and insightful way.

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Plays that are written in linear time do not necessarily mean that the writer is progressing from one action to another in a sequence of organized steps.  Edgar uses Oedipus as a great example of a story that uses non-chronological order, but “covers.”  According to Edgar, “Oedipus is an example of a play that is structured in real time.  His stage action is “linear.”  History emerges in bits and pieces as Oedipus discovers his identity and crimes, and all of this is revealed in non-chronological order.  For example, the beginning of the play, Oedipus, the king of Thebes wants to know how to end the plague that has come upon Thebes.  He is looking for a cure and sends his brother-in-law, Creon to the House of Apollo for some answers.  There is light at the end of the tunnel (or so it seems)!  Once the killer of the previous king, Laius, is found, the plague will be lifted.  Oedipus is on a mission to find the murderer and banish him forever.  “ Whoever among you knows the man wit was who murdered Laius, son of Labdacus, I order him to reveal it all to me.  And if the murderer’s afraid, I tell him to avoid the danger of the major charge by speaking out against himself.”

Irony plays a huge roll here, for the murder is Oedipus himself.  So, chronologically the murder has already happened, but Sophocles creates conflict by revealing Oedipus’ identity after the audience has already been made aware that he is the assassin.

By writing non-chronologically the author reveals present information in a powerful and objective way.  When writing s linear, a story will begin at point A and follow a time-progression that will take the characters to point B.  Edgar says, “There are plays which operate in a single time but move from place to place, with only the necessary movement of characters from A to B interrupting the continuous flow.”  Some plays operate in a single time cycle and only in one place, and this enlarges Aristotle’s ruling about time and place by increasing the play’s time beyond real time.  In other words, the time is both “defined” and “confined,” as in an evening or a single day.

It was very interesting to find that Arthur Miller’s original title for his famed play Death of a Salesman was, The Inside of His Head.  Taking into account the definition of “disrupted time,” which Edgar claims, “Is most developed in cinema,” and knowing that the plays action revolves around the protagonist (Willy Loman) sorting out so many unfulfilled dreams and failed realities, makes perfect sense.

Miller has taken a cinematic device and reminted it to demonstrate how it is not the past but our memory that informs our actions in the hear-and-now.  By making his ‘flashbacks’ a dramatization of a character’s present thought processes, Miller has made his mechanism authorially invisible as it’s possible for a non-naturalistic device to be.”

It is easy to see why non-linear structural forms work so well in screenplays.  The use of flashbacks, non-linear narratives, multiple shots, backwards and forwards, etc., all break away from the chronological three-act structure.  According to Edgar, “Cinema’s appropriation of the flashback from the novel gave twentieth-century theatre a whole new structural répertoire.”  Plays (screenplays) with disrupted time, where events happen in a non-chronological order utilize effects like flashbacks and backwards and forwards.  A wonderful example of the use of flashbacks is seen in the film, Groundhog Day.

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Since no one component alone builds a story, the utilization of open and closed structural elements that deal with time and space can broaden a writer’s options and bring greater depth to a story.  Edgar points out that there are some difficulties with real time.  One of those challenges is that, “You can’t avoid the naturalistic inconveniences of real life.”  By stretching time and place—“changing locations within or around a house or even a town reduces the impact of small changes in a single set, but opens up much greater opportunities for the setting to communicate meaning.”  This kind of structural format actually gets the audience to get involved.  They are able to examine the possibility of alternative plots.  “Moving some or all of the characters into a dramatically different environment and then moving them back again in the structural strategy most connected to a particular genre.”

While rudimentary guidelines still exist for the playwright and screenwriter, there is a lot more variance today.  The one-hero, three-act linear structure appears to be under revision.  Elements of structure have expanded, and what was once taboo, like:  flashbacks, backwards and forwards, non-linear narratives, multiple shots, etc. has disrupted the apple cart and given writers more creative options.

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Reviewing the situation: plot problems and a contrived ending

I went with a friend to see The Big Wedding this weekend, and much to my surprise and disappointment, the screenplay didn’t deliver.  I was even more surprised, given the all-star cast led by Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Robin Williams and Katherine Heigl. I mean, common… Really?

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So, what went wrong?

You know something’s going on when in the first 20 minutes of a comedy, no one is laughing out loud.  I remembering saying to myself, “Gee, the premise seemed funny, but no one is laughing, beginning with me!”  Worse still, when a comedian like Robin Williams has difficulty getting an audience to laugh, something is definitely amiss.

Let’s go straight for the juggler– the plot didn’t deliver.  It had problems.  There was a lack of focus; perhaps some misplaced emphasis on elements that really weren’t important; perhaps a part of trying to get a laugh, only it wasn’t working.  It’s not really good when an audience is “trying” to figure out the theme and make sense of the plot, which was a continuous issue while watching this film–there was just too much going on!

Can there be too much conflict?

Conflict births action, so in and of itself–conflict is a much needed element in a story.  However, though you can’t really have too much conflict, you can have too many conflicts, and that was an issue in The Big Wedding.  In fact, the story is basically conflict-driven, but without focus.  It felt like I was at a smorgasbord, being dished a combination plate of Meet The Frockers, Bridesmaids, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, with raunchy French sexual innuendos served on the side.

The film is a loose adaptation of the French film, Mon frère se marie (2006), where a Vietnamese refugee, who was adopted 20 years prior by a Swiss family is about to get married.  His Vietnamese mother uses the wedding as an opportunity to “finally” meet the family who so lovingly took in her son.  However, all was not as it was supposed.  The Swiss couple underwent a less-than amicable divorce, the father is bankrupt, the sister is alienated and the oldest brother gloomy.

The awkwardness and confusion in this storyline starts at the very onset of the film.  Imagine a divorced, older woman returning to the scene of the crime—you know…where marital life and family life evolved.  In this scenario, Ellie Griffin (Diane Keaton) shows up at her old stomping grounds, only to find her ex-husband’s face creviced between the legs of her former best friend (Susan Sarandon), who is laying on the granite kitchen counter top calling her lover (not husband) Don Griffin (Robert De Niro) a “slut.”

O—kaaaay!

Why did Ellie leave her children and house in the hands of another woman, who happened to be her best friend?  How does a mother seemingly laugh off those life-altering events?  Of course, perhaps this character has a moment of sweet revenge when she ends up in a lengthy, loud sexual encounter with her ex (De Niro), who is particularly curious about her 90-minute orgasms.

Everyone seems to have an issue—to include the bride-to-be’s (Amanda Seyfried) weird and bankrupt parents.  This is dysfunction at its finest.  Perhaps a more authentic title would have been, “The Dysfunctional Wedding.”  Lyla (Katherine Heigl), the estranged child, who defines the word “bitch,” is as confusing as the day is long (and please someone talk to wardrobe and hair—clothing choices and her hairdo only added to her horrid persona). We do understand that she has obvious disdain for her father, and get a sense of how he sickens her in a metaphorical moment, when she manages to barf all over him as they reunite. Heigl’s character makes no sense, and never fully resolves.  You are just left with a million unanswered questions, and a very unlikeable character.

Ellie and Don’s brilliant 29-year-old doctor son Jared (Topher Grace) is saving himself for “Miss Right,” who happens to be Alejandro, his adopted brother’s sexy Colombian sister, Nuria (Ana Ayora).  Of course, he’s unaware that she’s “the one,” until she decides to give him a hand-job under the dinner table at the rehearsal dinner.  Suddenly, he’s inspired!

When a script is crammed with too many characters, with too much conflict, and too many unanswered questions, it is an indication that there is far too much going on.  The idea of “one external conflict” isn’t really present.

Here’s another important fact:  For a story to work, the audience has to have a relationship with the main character.  They must see relatable characteristics.  Even if the character is majorly flawed, the audience is still going to root for him or her.  I did not find myself doing that with any of these characters, in fact, they ALL annoyed me.

According to Aristotle, creating a powerful (believable) plot and structure is the most important aspect of writing.  In addition, plot and character are unified.  Screenwriter and author, Michael Tierno says, “Good writers serve their stories; bad writers serve their own agendas.”  Did Justin Zackham serve his own agenda?

For a story to work, the protagonist has to want something, and someone (the antagonist, and I’m still wondering who or what the antagonist is in this film) has to be there to stop that from happening.  It’s one major conflict—an important conflict, one that will send him on a journey that will change his or her life!

The Big Wedding promises to entertain—the title itself let’s us know we’re in store for something full-size!  But does it?  The late Blake Snyder, who authored one of my favorite books, Save The Cat talks about the “Promise of the premise…” Snyder suggests that a movies premise (it’s poster) can only satisfy if we (the audience) “see it in action.” In other words, there must be a pay off!  For the audience to feel satisfied, we must see the fulfillment of the promise (the theme) unfold with every scene.  If this does not take place, Snyder says, “The audience will consider it to be a bad experience.”

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There is no pay-off in The Big Wedding, and by the time it’s over—the audience has only seen fragments of a wedding that never even got off the ground.  We’ve seen an ending that feels sudden and contrived, and three main characters that might be more believable if they were working as advocates for AARP.

Unlike the brilliant writing seen in the The Bucket List (2007), the biggest thing Justin Zackham has going for him with The Big Wedding is his exceptional cast, but even their genius couldn’t drive the rudder of this story.

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