When it comes to military movies the Coast Guard is nearly always given the short end of the oar compared to their land-based bretheren. While they’ve often been a subplot in a larger story, films dedicated solely to the Coast Guard’s heroic exploits are few and far between, which puts Disney’s “The Finest Hours” in rare company. The film, directed by Craig Gillespie and starring an able-bodied cast affecting their best New England accents, centers on the 1952 Pendletonrescue mission, what many deem their greatest rescue effort ever, one that saw the men involved awarded for their life-saving efforts. But the film fails to live up to that herculean standard, drowning in a sea of coastal cliches and an odd decision to focus everywhere but the rescue.
Taking cues from everything from “The Perfect Storm” to “Pearl Harbor”, the film is exactly what one would think a Disney version of this story would be, some of that for the better, most of it for the worse. While it looks incredible, you’ll feel waterlogged just watching it, the characters are flatly heroic and thus totally uninteresting. Chris Pine, who can nearly always be counted on to play flatly heroic and uninteresting characters, plays real-life Coast Guardsman Bernard Webber. When we first meet him he’s engaged in an “awww shucks how cute” blind date with his soon-to-be fiance, Miriam (Holliday Grainger). She’s feisty, doesn’t really do anything by the book. In fact, she asks him to marry her. But Webber, he’s all about following the rules, even though it hasn’t really gotten him anywhere. The other guardsmen, and the locals in this small coastal community, still remember a rescue he couldn’t mount a year earlier, one that cost men their lives. He could barely get out of shore.
A chance at redemption arrives in the form of a powerful nor’easter that cracks in half a tanker ship near Cape Code. The only one with the guts to go out into the perfect storm to make a rescue is Webber, along with a small hand-picked crew (Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner, John Magaro) who don’t have the most confidence in the captain of their little speederboat. And that is really what the screenplay, penned by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson, is all about; Webber’s redemption in the eyes of the people. Most of the film concerns itself with whether or not Webber can get beyond the powerful swells and reach the sinking tanker, but it doesn’t make for a very compelling tale just to have their boat pass some arbitrary point in the water. There isn’t much conflict between Webber and his crew of seamen, either, and even less among the men on the downed vessel where there should be the most. Casey Affleck plays the one man on the ship everyone trusts, but he probably would have been better suited in Pine’s role. He deserves more than listening to the ship’s creaking hull below deck. The same goes for Eric Bana who does little but bark orders over a radio, at least when he’s not admonishing Miriam for worrying about her husband. If you figured this was one of those films where the concerned woman waits at the pier for her man’s ship to come into port, then you’d be exactly right.
The problems with “The Finest Hours” aren’t technical, but there are only so many crashing waves one can watch before it grows tiresome. There just isn’t much variety in the cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe, who fills the screen with one gigantic wave after another. It’s a little hard to believe that a boat as tiny as Webber’s could withstand waves that look like they were sent to swallow the entire Earth, but that little bit of fantasy is a much needed life preserver in an otherwise uninspired film.