I spent the last week of January speeding through the deserts of the southwestern United States. It was the midway point of a cross-country road trip, New Jersey to San Francisco, through a landscape that to New England eyes looked almost Martian. Dust-and-wire signs scattered the roadsides crookedly in small Texas towns, and at the arc-shaped ranch gates, at the end of eternal orange-yellow dust drives. “STOP THE Congress Created Dust Bowl” or simply “Congress Created Dust Bowl” signs trailed us through California.
The sense of crisis in the air was startling for two reasons. First, the landscape around us, especially in California, was to all appearances rolling and green and full of life. We’d been just joking that we might have accidentally ended up in Ireland (neither of us having been to Ireland). It also was startling because on each successive hotel’s noisy breakfast room TV set, we watched the flooding simultaneously swelling across southern New Jersey, from where we had departed only a few days before, outstripping Jonas’s southern-most point just outside Nashville. But on the morning broadcasts, the flooding followed us.
“I know what street that is,” said my girlfriend, sitting next to me and forgetting to drink her coffee. The images on screen were dramatic, quick-cutting B-roll of gushing floods along suburban streets, sandbagged shop doors. It was disaster footage, a disaster story, after the many photos and videos of snowbound cars and grisly traffic post-Jonas we had already seen cascading through social media. I knew that the images, run-of-the-mill news treatment, were looking very different to my girlfriend. She had been a first responder during Sandy, then an EMT, now in the Coast Guard. To her, it might have looked something like a surreal replay.
And immediately following the news story—distant East Coast flooding spliced together with neatly groomed newscasters—a trailer for The Finest Hours rolled to life. The movie, which premiered in theaters last Friday, is a blockbuster disaster I had been stalwartly against watching, for one, because it portrays a rather nerve-fraying depiction of the Coast Guard’s job (the movie takes place only a few stations up the coast from where my girlfriend had, until that week, been stationed). Chris Pine headlines a cast in this shadow-and-navy colored saga, bringing to life one of the most famous rescues in the Coast Guard’s history. A pair of oil tankers off of Cape Cod is devastatingly damaged during a massive 1952 blizzard. With an air of courageous self-sacrifice, the star-studded cast, including Pine, Eric Bana, Casey Affleck, and Ben Foster, rush up against enormous odds to bring the ships’ crews to safety. Then, suddenly, the broadcast was back, with scenes of New Jersey flooding again.
It was one of those surreal flipping back and forth moments, the television tangling real flood footage with CGI waves crushing boats to pieces off the Atlantic coast. The disaster-movie element of the morning nagged at me. Colliding with one another, entirely incidentally, the digital and the actual crushing weather battered against the other side of the screen. The Finest Hours is a prototypical disaster movie: it is a movie about combatting a historical disaster, and, in this case, triumphing. 13 Hours is another early 2016 release with a similar standpoint: when “everything goes wrong,” as the tag line says, the movie offers a portrait of true-to-the-facts courage. The theaters seem to be starting off the new year with feet firmly planted against adversity: not the most optimistic starting point.
However the tangled visuals of the news story and the Finest Hours trailer stayed with me, rolling through the desert past those Pray for Rain banners, precisely because they were just that, tangled together, visually. The Finest Hours is a movie, like many disaster movies, that loves its visuals, especially in the age when CGI allows those disasters to be more overwhelming, more gargantuan, more devastating than ever. The fascination with being shocked into terror is as old as cinema: that first legendary 1895 shot of the train rolling into the station at La Ciotat, according to its cinematic mythos, sent spectators scattering from their seats, illogically convinced that the train really was about to rush through the screen at them. The spectacle endures. These disaster movies demand to be seen in cinemas, to let their special effects run rampant to the most momentous scale possible. Such is the impetus to show disaster enormously, monumentally, to imprint on the nerves like the adrenaline-spiked sense of going over the top of a roller coaster, that Disney converted The Finest Hours into 3D, making long portions of the film, as Peter Sobczynski puts it on RobertEbert.com, “virtually unwatchable” in its “enhanced” 3D rendition. But such a movie, when its waves crash in, with tankers cracking in two down the middle, demands the highest sensory payload (and, of course, a few more dollars on each ticket for the box office).
The disaster movie seeks to crash in, to overwhelm, to immerse, where we’re pushed to experience, rather than only to watch. The Finest Hour is the latest in a long and colorful stretch of such blockbusters— 2012, Twister, The Day After Tomorrow, War of the Worlds, and Cloverfield all spring to mind. Immersion erases the voyeuristic sense that we shouldn’t be looking on passively from the comfort of a theater seat. Rather, heart pounding, holding our breath, a successful disaster movie feels like it flings us against the odds too.
But the divide is very, very thin between that plunging headlong sense of being inside the action and the voyeuristic, at-a-distance sense of looking on, of being reported to. That latter sense belongs to newscasts. We spend much more of our lives receiving journalistic reports—frequently dramatic, frequently sensational—than we do watching Hollywood disaster dramas. Newscasts, like the ones that showed the flooding in New Jersey last week, are exactly the grave, at-a-distance fear that live on the other side of the divide from disaster movies, even when those movies, like The Finest Hours, portray historical events. The Finest Hours neatly sets itself up as fiction: it has all the hallmarks of an adventure story, courage against adversity, heart-pounding obstacles, insurmountable, now miraculously surmounted, all in the moment. All the elements absent from the typical newscaster story, the B-footage of rolling water, the anchor’s voice overlying the moment, the event itself already, for the most part, having passed by.
When the two ran together incidentally, it raised the question of what exactly had been keeping them apart. A long span of decades between the events of one and the events of the other? The fictionalizing, famous-faced blockbuster? Yes, but ultimately the intentional thrill of a blockbuster disaster-spectacle. While some of its energy may flow from the astonishment that wow, it really happened, surely as much of its success, and the success of movies like it, comes from the relieved sense of being separated from the hard, factual sense of looking onto a real disaster. Rather, we experience it, immersed in the spectacle of the moment, and freed from the discouraging links to a journalistic sense of danger.
Photo by Lynn Friedman