The Finest Hours is a movie about the true life heroism of a group of Coast Guard members battling a fierce New England storm in the early 1950s to save the stranded crew of a wrecked tanker—at least, when it’s actually about that, it’s not bad. Giant waves flinging various vessels around willy-nilly, a crew racing to the rescue, another struggling to stay afloat long enough for them to arrive: All of this works. But whenever the movie does anything else…?
The scenes of a too-small boat, piloted by Bernie Webber (Chris Pine in a drastic change from his time at the helm of the Enterprise), plowing through giant rolling breakers, or Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) trying to MacGyver the aft portion of a snapped-in-half tanker through a raging storm—these are harrowing and visceral, exciting and primal. When people talk, or the script from Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson—based on a book by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias—has the cardboard characters do things, talk to each other, or interact in any way, The Finest Hours is brutally dull.
Unfortunately, it takes so, so long for the film to get anywhere. The first act follows good-natured, painfully awkward Boatswains Mate First Class Webber (Pine) on a date with the impetuous, does-what-she-wants Miriam (Holliday Grainger). He’s the kind of socially awkward that only exists in movies: He’s supposed to be endearing, but instead is annoying and cloying, coming across as basically just a simpleton. He even thinks he has to ask his superior to marry his girlfriend.
Fortunately, there is a terrible tragedy about to go down as the tanker Pendleton has ripped in half in the midst of a vicious winter storm, leaving many of the sailors, including the reluctant leader Sybert, forcing Webber into action. Given what amounts to an impossible task that they’ll either whuss out of—by pretending to “get lost” on the way—or die trying to accomplish, Webber heads out into the building-tall waves and gale-force winds to rescue the remnants of the crew.
That crew: There’s the negligently inept supervisor; a slick, fast-talking best friend; jolly cook on the tanker who sings all the time; grizzled older seaman; scared-shitless new guy—you get it. Otherwise fine actors like Eric Bana, Ben Foster and Graham McTavish are squandered on rote roles. Meanwhile, Casey Affleck gives a dependable performance as the stoic, strong Sybert, but while he’s compelling to watch on screen—he has an “aww shucks” demeanor that belies a deep knowledge and capability, and the crew’s respect for him reflects this—he never really rises above the archetypally reluctant hero who loves the Pendleton because he’s supposed to.
The film’s biggest failure is Miriam. The Finest Hours initially attempts to make her some kind of anti-military-wife construct: She’s self-assured, she’s the one who proposes, she barges into Webber’s boss’ office to demand to know what’s going on. But, halfway through the film, once Webber is out to sea, jostled about on his tiny boat, she just muddles through a few scenes that are supposed to be emotional (there’s a half-baked back story about how once Webber couldn’t save some people), mostly relegated to a forgotten footnote.
Tucked into the back end of January, long the studio’s dumping ground for films that don’t live up to their potential, The Finest Hours is what is expected. Or not: The real-life rescue of the Pendleton is one of those remarkable tales that, given this sort of treatment, deserves so much better than this.
Director: Craig Gillespie
Writers: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson
Starring: Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Holliday Grainger, Ben Foster, Eric Bana,
Release Date: January 29, 2016