Heroism in the face of natural elements are the types of stories that have fueled cinema for years. Last year we had “Everest” which took dramatic licensing to the nth degree as Jon Krakauer’s novel “Into Thin Air” and the facts of his first-hand experiences as part of the 1996 climbing disaster were watered down worse than the drinks the bartender has been serving you. Whenever you see the words “based on a true story” in front of a movie read that to mean “artistic license required to distort truth for the entertainment of general audiences.”
“The Finest Hours” is another man vs. nature survival story this time blending a seafaring disaster with an inspirational story of courage. Yet, while impressive-looking in chaotic scenes when hope is most dire, the film isn’t emotionally impacting on account it can’t commit to a single dramatic tone.
Craig Gillespie, who made his feature film debut with a story about an introverted Ryan Gosling who begins to have a romantic relationship with a doll he buys online (“Lars and the Real Girl”), has been a director-for-hire for Disney making projects like “Fright Night” (2011) for Touchstone Pictures and “Million Dollar Arm” (2014), yet another one of Disney’s sports movies (see also “Remember the Titans” and “Miracle”). Gillespie should be an odd fit to command such a picture but his direction help keeps “The Finest Hours” together as its high seas disaster sequences serve as the film’s most attractive feature.
On the night of February 18, 1952, the SS Pendleton, a retired WWII convoy now commercial oil tanker, was making a trip from New Orleans to Boston fighting a nor’easter as it traveled up the Atlantic. The combination of wintry weather, bad welding and a strong gale caused it to split in two a few miles south of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. With no captain it is up to Ray (Casey Affleck), the ship’s reluctant engineer (and who “knows the ship better than anyone”), to keep the remaining 34 crewmen alive and the ship afloat, all the while dealing with mounting hostility from a few of the crew.
Chris Pine, who has been cavalier captaining the Starship Enterprise, plays the meek Bernie Webber, a Coast Guard captain recently engaged to the assertive Miriam (Holliday Grainger). She is very supportive of her husband-to-be even if she doesn’t quite fully understand the life she’s marrying into – where men go out to sea but might not come back. A failed rescue a year prior has left Bernie groping, but when he’s given a rescue order he rounds up a three-man crew: Richard (Ben Foster), Andy (Kyle Gallner) and Ervin (John Magaro). The operation is likely doomsday for these four as their small wooden craft motors out of harbor. Losing the navigational compass Bernie relies on instinct and more than a little luck in the search for the tanker off the coast. Meanwhile, Miriam remains on land and a nervous wreck, showing her bullheadedness towards men of authority as she pleads to have Bernie called back home.
“The Finest Hours” gets off to a rough start with a prologue that sets up the Bernie-Miriam relationship. A blind date that shows Bernie as insular and Miriam outspoken, we get a man who is all about following the rules. He is scared of what the Pendleton rescue operation entails but he goes about his job. Grainger stands out in her scenes on shore, even if it amounts to nothing more than allowing our eyes a break from the survival and rescue stories.
If Grainger stands out it’s probably on account of her character being embellished. While the relationship she has with Pine’s character may have been that genuine, I’d happen to think her involvement to the story was less impacting than we’re led to believe. Actually, the film is its weakest in the relationships between the crews in the parallel stories. To the point that an actor as talented as Ben Foster, having been the scene-stealer several years ago in “3:10 to Yuma” alongside Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, is criminally wasted.
“The Finest Hours” boasts some amazing visuals to go with the heroic story its lionizing, albeit one lacking a clear dramatic vision. Most audiences will overlook this, as they will the background characters that are more archetypes than people. Had the filmmakers allowed the story to be less about being a Hollywood spectacle “The Finest Hours” would have been a better representation of what remains one of the most daring rescues of the United States Coast Guard.
Director: Craig Gillespie
Writers: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson
Starring: Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Holliday Grainger, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, Graham McTavish, John Ortiz, Kyle Gallner
Running Time: 117 minutes
Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of peril)