Normally, every protagonist in a live-action Walt Disney film gets an unnecessarily thick coat of heroic paint and every encounter, obstacle, or event calls for a full-throated orchestra of peril and self-importance. In a somewhat pleasant surprise, “The Finest Hours” avoids most of the the puffed-up flamboyance that we expect (and commonly grow tired of) from the Mouse House. The key word is “most,” as the film thankfully dials down the usual Disney over-inflation while still possessing plenty of imperfections and distractions.
“The Finest Hours” recounts a lionhearted chapter of U.S. Coast Guard history from 1952. During a wicked February nor’easter, two oil tankers are split in half by the fierce seas in separate disasters off the southeast elbow of the Cape Cod, Massuchesetts coast. One, the S.S. Mercer, is able to send out a distress signal and get afforded the full attention of the Coast Guard’s fleet. The other, the S.S. Pendleton, goes initially undetected by radar and radio for hours with 34 remaining crew members on board.
The Pendleton crew, led by mild-mannered engine room veteran Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), fight to slow the gradual rise of water that threatens their pumps, engine intakes, and generators. Once the Pendleton is discovered, the nearby Coast Guard station in Chatham, Massachusetts, led by Chief Warrant Office Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana), contemplates a rescue effort. Undermanned and ill-equipped with a ship large enough to conquer their own coastal wave and tide conditions, Cluff (Eric Bana) enlists Boatswain’ Mate First Class Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) to assemble a small motorboat crew (including Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner, and John Magaro) to head out to the Pendleton. Their local fisherman and Coast Guard peers consider it a suicide mission.
By this point of any adventure film, when the proverbial sails are unfurled and the action begins, we’ve already met and come to know Bernie Webber. Eschewing all of his macho Captain Kirk bravado from the “Star Trek” series, Pine plays Webber as a meek rule follower and true believer of the Coast Guard’s mission to save lives at any cost. He plays him as impossibly shy and quiet. However, since he still looks like Chris Pine, Bernie courts and becomes engaged to a pretty local phone operator named Miriam, played by Holliday Grainger.
True to Disney machinations, Bernie has redemption issues at correcting a past failure that remains a salty topic with the locals and his peers. Likewise to cliche, Miriam is afraid of boats and bound to the penalty of being the tearful girl-waiting-on-the-dock at home. Unfortunately, their dull and punchless romance becomes a weighty subplot that drags down too much of “The Finest Hours.” It is a shame too because director Craig Gillespie, in his second Disney tour-of-duty after “Million Dollar Arm,” has a worthy piece of history at his fingertips with more than enough compelling detail to not need romantic help or a blockbuster rub.
Colored with muted hues of gray, white, and brown, much of “The Finest Hours” plays with a tone of earnestness. As the two leaders, both Pine and Affleck are more mealy-mouthed men of example first and men of action second. People respond to them with skepticism, and therefore, so do we. Bana and Foster, two equally adept actors, are afterthoughts behind them. Subdued from the Ahab archetypes of most maritime characters, Pine and Affleck are not completely bland, but neither offers much inspiration or entertaining gravity, two aspects woefully missing from the film as a whole. Charm and confidence are missing as well.
Though audiences will inevitably try, this film does not compare to the voluminous mayhem of Wolfgang Peterson’s 2000 summer blockbuster “The Perfect Storm.” Both films have their bad attempts at New England accents, occasionally pushy danger musical scores, and extremely impressive sea scenes aided by a combination of stunt work and visual effects. While Peterson’s film guns high for wild spectacle and heavy-handed emotion at all times, it still had better characters and actors that took your breath away. “The Finest Hours” resonates much lower and keeps more things soft-spoken than shouted and hollered.
Lesson #1: Hypothermia does not exist in the movies— Bernie and his crew are at sea for hours, overnight in February, in a cabin-less motorboat being soaked, pummeled, and even submerged, by near-hurricane-force seas and winds. Researched scientific facts published by the U.S. Coast Guard would give those boys minutes before shock takes over affecting bodily and mental functions and mere hours before hypothermia and likely death. Chris Pine barely looses perfect wet-look hair. Come on!
Lesson #2: The brave U.S. Coast Guard way— Jokes of science aside, even with meeker and weaker characters than the norm, we are watching the best of the selflessness of the U.S. Coast Guard on display. Their official motto of “Semper Paratus” translates to “always ready” and their official marching song extols their courage, determination, toughness, and sacrifice. Honoring a true story, “The Finest Hours” gets that spirit right.