“The Finest Hours” is based on the true story of the miraculous Pendleton rescue of 1952 – an event still considered the greatest small boat rescue in the history of the Coast Guard. Though bravery undoubtedly surfaced throughout the real experience, here, sheer luck appears to outweigh intrepidity, ignoring all opportunities to display undaunted heroism in its place. This is a major mistake for any picture, but especially so in a disaster movie.
Every character thrust into the middle of insurmountable danger radiates overwhelming timidity, uncertainty, and even, on occasion, idiocy. “They’ll listen to you!” Graham McTavish’s Frank Fauteux blazons to Casey Affleck’s soft-spoken Ray Sybert. But why would they? Confidence and conviction never emerge from any of the seagoing protagonists, causing frustration and annoyance for the viewer. No matter how spectacular the setting of Mother Nature’s wrath upon the miniscule entities invading her waters, no entertainment can be derived from witnessing jellyfish tossed about in a sea of skepticism.
In the winter of 1951, shy Coast Guardsman Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) meets Miriam (Holliday Grainger) on a blind date – and the two quickly fall in love. The following year, the assertive young girl asks Bernie to marry her, but his shaken courage from an earlier rescue mission that resulted in tragedy affords him marked hesitancy. When a violent storm splits two massive oil tankers in half, Webber is given a chance to regain his resolve. Intent on saving the survivors of the SS Pendleton, the determined coxswain and his crew of three sailors, Engineman Andrew Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner) and seamen Richard Livesey (Ben Foster) and Ervin Maske (John Magaro), must conquer monumental obstacles to reach the imperiled vessel.
“The Finest Hours” starts right in with the character development, forgetting almost immediately that it’s supposed to be a disaster movie. And a January disaster movie at that. Too much attention is given to Webber’s personal life and in all the wrong areas; instead of focusing on the tragic events that lead to his shattered confidence asea, a formulaic romance is initiated, where a cherub-faced redhead exhibits enough control and pluck to make Pine’s lead just that much more inadequate.
This might not have been an unwanted contrast were it not for the addition of several other fainthearted, shy, ineffectual players. Affleck’s Sybert and even Eric Bana’s officer-in-charge Daniel Cluff are mousy, incompetent, and permanently unsure, incapable of producing a hint of leadership or purposefulness. There’s not a respectable character in the entire picture, nor is there a genuinely salty tar (save for Graham McTavish) among them. The various roles exhibit stupidity more routinely than bravery, which is problematic for a film that should, at the very least, disguise stupidity as bravery. “The Finest Hours” is entirely devoid of heroism; luck, insubordination, and cinematic segues prove to be solutions to predicaments rather than the typical common sense or grit.
“The Finest Hours” wants to be more than just a disaster film, but it doesn’t know how to achieve that. In fact, it doesn’t really know how to pose as a disaster film, either. Every time a suspenseful scenario is orchestrated, the editing and dialogue and actions manage to stymie the anticipation. There’s no tension or fearfulness or believable peril. Perhaps this is because it’s a Disney production, in which blood and death must be at an absolute minimum. But likely it’s because director Craig Gillespie just doesn’t know what to do with the screenplay, which is crafted so generically and so ploddingly that the special effects of crashing waves and suffocating waters are unable to cope with the slow pacing and pitiful personas. Some of it is so bad it’s almost hilarious – but unfortunately, it never goes far enough to be truly funny in its artistic dreadfulness. Instead, it’s mostly just unwatchable.