The world could only benefit from more rousing tales of selfless heroism, but The Finest Hours only serves as a fleeting thrill and doesn’t pack the punch to conjure tears because it feels like the paint by numbers version of this incredible rescue mission.
Directed by Craig Gillespie, The Finest Hours is based on the true story of the SS Pendleton, a T2 tanker that broke in half during a vicious nor’easter back in 1952. With many Coast Guardsmen in the area busy tending to the Fort Mercer, another T2 tanker that also happened to split in two during the storm off the New England coast, Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) and his team of second-stringers had to head out to rescue the men aboard the Pendleton alone.
Disney’s been selling this as a classic tale of heroism and that’s exactly what we get. The movie isn’t ridden with tacky hero shots or motivational speeches, but it is a very surface level adaptation that delivers a play-by-play of what’s dubbed the greatest small boat rescue in Coast Guard history without digging deep in any respect.
Bernie Webber is a good man and the film likes to tell you that over and over again. Pine is an instant charmer and serves as a very likable hero, but there’s absolutely no nuance to the character. He’s soft spoken and plays by the rules to a fault, but all the movie does is spit out examples of him doing so without ever giving the viewer any incite into why Bernie is like that, how it affects his personal life and career, and why he might need to change his behavior, which severely weakens the film’s big finish.
The rest of the team aboard the CG36500 lifeboat barely gets any screen time. Ben Foster plays Richard Livesey, a skilled seaman who thinks he’s too good to work with the other guys, Kyle Gallner is Andy Fitzgerald, a third-class engineer who scores a spot on the boat because Bernie’s regular engineman is sick, and then John Magaro steps in as Ervin Maske, a volunteer who just happens to be passing through when the storm hits. That right there is about all you’re going to get from them. However, Beau Knapp actually manages to make an impression as Gus, the aforementioned engineman who catches a cold during the storm. Much of the first act of the film is dedicated to setting up Bernie’s relationship with his fiancée Miriam (Holliday Grainger) and in the process, the material establishes a very convincing friendship between Gus and Bernie as well.
As for Miriam, sadly, she’s the weak link of the film. Pine and Grainger have chemistry but the script doesn’t seem to know what to do with her. There is a clear effort to make her perspective an important element of the film, but when Bernie and co. head out to sea for a daring rescue mission, the last thing you want is to be ripped from the action to see Miriam arguing with Bernie’s superior. Worst of all, Miriam doesn’t really accomplish anything over the course of the movie. Instead, her involvement feels like someone over at the studio said, “We need a strong female lead,” and then tried to shoehorn her in.
The story and ensemble over on the Pendleton are far stronger. The Finest Hours could have used more character development across the board but Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) is one of few with some curious texture. He’s the chief engineer on the Pendleton and reluctantly takes control when the ship snaps in half and the bow section sinks, taking down the Pendleton’s commanding officers with it. Sybert’s got some guys on his side, but not all of them, so the situation on the Pendleton is this more complex blend of needing to figure out a way to keep the tanker afloat while also needing to get the group to work together.
The portion of the film that takes place on the Pendleton also features the most stunning cinematography and set design. As someone who rarely praises the use of 3D, I was shocked when the extra dimension actually enhanced the scenes that took place in the incredibly detailed Pendleton engine room. Gillespie also does an excellent job establishing the geography of the ship and the importance of certain pieces of equipment with minimal exposition. For example, there’s this one shot (which I imagine is actually multiple shots) where we follow the crew shouting information from one person to the next until a message from the deck makes its way down to the engine room, giving you a thorough understanding of how expansive the ship is and how devastating the damage to it is.
As for the CG waves and storm, Gillespie gets away with it but it’s very difficult to track the action as the CG36500 attempts to makes its way to the Pendleton. It’s clearly extremely challenging to navigate the seas in such rough weather, but as someone who knows little to nothing about how to maneuver a boat over such enormous waves, from my perspective, the boat moved around as though a child might play with a toy, surfing high waves and fully submerging the vessel under others.
Criticize as I might, The Finest Hours is a decent watch and gets the job done to a point. The true story deserved a better script, but what we wound up with is still a charming and exciting depiction of an act of heroism that everybody should know about.