“The Finest Hours” is a true story about the largest small boat rescue in U.S. Coast Guard history when an oil tanker split in two during a blizzard off the shores of Massachusetts. The visual of the massive ship split down the middle managing to float on the rough seas while its other half sinks is kind of poetic to what Craig Gillespie’s film is, as half of the movie is strong, entertaining work, while the other unfortunately sinks more than it swims.
Unfortunately, for those going in on the promise of leading man Chris Pine, it’s his half that bogs down the film. That is not an indictment on Pine, who is solid as Bernie Weber, the Coast Guard man who was in charge of the rescue mission, it’s just that there’s only so much that his role can take on, and is afforded. Bernie is a low-key, respectable guy. He follows the rules to the letter of the law, even when it comes to asking his station chief permission to marry his girlfriend (played by Holliday Grainger). His arc isn’t bad either, as he learns that sometimes you got to break the rules to do the right thing. Pine makes Bernie likeable, but not necessarily inspiring, as the guy who leads this daring rescue mission.
A lot of that has to do with the fact that there doesn’t feel like there’s much at stake during his scenes. Most of the time Bernie and his team and just traversing to the shipwreck. Yes the conditions are tough, and yes they lose their compass early on, but the goal never changes, they need to get to the ship. The conditions never really change either, the rain just picks up, or another big wave comes and gets them even wetter. The only sequence that truly puts you on pins and needles as the crew heads out on their rescue is when they have to get over a stretch of ocean that is particularly perilous, and that happens early on. The rescue was daring and heroic, but unfortunately, most of it didn’t translate in too particularly great cinema.
The film also spends some time back on the shore with Grainger’s character Miriam, and it suffers the same problem as Pine’s storyline. There’s an extended sequence when Miriam’s car gets stuck in a snow bank and she gets help from a couple of people who had a brother and husband lost at sea a year before because Bernie and his team couldn’t get out to him. It’s an interesting facet to the story, especially as a driving factor for Bernie, but there is little conflict in it for Miriam, as is the rest of her time on the shore as she does do little but sit and wait.
Then there is the love story between Grainger and Pine’s character, which credit to the filmmakers, they only spend a small amount of time on at the start of the film so they can dive more quickly into the events of the rescue, but that required a greater sense of chemistry between Pine and Grainger. Separate, the performances are fine. Pine gives Bernie the requisite quiet dignity, while Grainger adds plenty of gumption to Miriam; but together they are best described as middling.
It is also impossible to ignore the inconsistent accents in the film. Pine is the only one who is truly passable in the film, while the rest struggled to nail a consistent or coherent way of delivering their lines. The biggest problems were Ben Foster, who’s traditional mumble was made even more incomprehensible mixed with the Massachusetts accent and Eric Bana, who delivers a laughable southern accent.
What saves “The Finest Hours” from slipping into a true mess is the story of the men on the tanker as they work to keep it afloat, led by a subtly commanding performance from Casey Affleck.
Affleck plays a similar character to Pine – a man who is forced to speak up and lead in dire circumstances – but where the two performances differ is how Affleck is able to turn that quite nature into his greatest strength, as the pillar of a group of men who are scarred for their lives. It doesn’t hurt that Affleck’s supporting cast was much more interesting, and easier to understand, save for one character, who Affleck has to translate for.
The events on the tanker are also more thrilling, or at least executed in a more thrilling way. Whether it be shoving a big metal bar into a fitted slot while the ship is moving, or attempting to steer half a ship, the crew is constantly faced with new challenges, keeping the excitement up. Every time the film cuts away from this group it goes into a slight lull until the action brings us back to them.
As for Gillespie, the director has struggled to find a grove with any of his films since he broke into the industry with “Lars and the Real Girl.” While he shows that he can direct these big type of action set pieces like the actual rescue sequence, there were odd choices that made other action scenes chaotic and at times hard to follow. And as mentioned previously, his work on the quieter scenes, while technically and compositionally sound, had little going for them to bring any real interest.
This is a story that should be known, as all involved are true heroes. However, the film’s parts struggle to come together to bring the appropriate excitement to the tale, save for Affleck and the storyline on the tanker. It has its moments, but it fails to live up to the legend of the event.
“The Finest Hours” releases today, Jan. 29, nationwide.