Though it may look like “The Perfect Storm Lite”, The Finest Hours actually has very little in common with that other, far more intense and engrossing drama based on a true story of maritime peril and tragedy.
It has its moments of intensity, and its story is built around an emotional trope that should resonate fairly well with audiences. But its narrative momentum lags in all the wrong places, resulting in a film that drags when it should be at its most gripping. It’s not a terrible film, by any means, but considering the story that inspires the film, one that’s hailed as one of the most heroic in the history of the United States Coast Guard, audiences may leave theaters thinking the Coast Guard deserved better.
What’s it About?
Set in February, 1952, The Finest Hours recounts the rescue of 32 crew members from the SS Pendleton, a 500-foot oil tanker that’s caught in the winds, waves, and rain of a powerful nor’easter pummeling the eastern seaboard. The ship literally splits in half, its bow sinking below the waves within minutes while its stern section remaining afloat thanks to the engineering of the ship’s ballasts and pumps. Faced with the fact that the radio and all the ship’s officers went down with the bow, the Pendleton’s soft-spoken but skilled chief engineer, Raymond Sybert (Casey Affleck, Gone Baby Gone), is forced to rally the remaining crew and find a way to keep the ship afloat in the storm until help arrives.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guard station in Chatham, Massachusetts, commanded by Warrant Officer Cluff (Eric Bana), works to mount a rescue of an second oil tanker out at sea, the SS Fort Mercer, also split in half by the ferocity of the storm. It’s only after the Guard’s best sailors have left to rescue the Fort Mercer that Cluff and his remaining staff discover the Pendleton’s plight.
Considering the dangerous conditions created by the storm combined with the area’s geography, sending help to the Pendleton looks like suicide. but it’s exactly what Cluff orders his one remaining boatswain, Bernie Webber (Chris Pine, Star Trek Into Darkness) to do: pick a crew, take his wooden CG36500 lifeboat through the storm and the waves out to the stricken tanker, and attempt a rescue. Bernie, who went to work that day thinking the most difficult thing he’d have to do is ask his commanding officer’s permission to marry his sweetheart, Miriam (Holliday Grainger), solemnly follows his orders and ventures out into the storm, with no one really expecting that he’ll return. Haunted by previous failure and dogged by the doubts of his own crew, Bernie resolves to do his duty and reach the Pendleton or die trying.
Score one for the underdogs
What makes The Finest Hours potentially a crowd pleaser is that it is an underdog story, maybe even more than it is a disaster film. The film is full of mismatches: the tiny, motorized lifeboat versus the nor’easter and the massive waves it creates; Bernie and his sense of duty versus the collective wisdom of Chatham’s more experienced seamen; Sybert versus the fear and doubts of his remaining crew about the Pendleton, as well as the elements; and even Miriam, who fights a battle of her own against expectations of the “proper” behavior of spouses and loved ones of Coast Guardsmen in that place and time.
In each case, it’s quiet determination that triumphs over brute strength and bluster, and there’s always something satisfying in seeing those kinds of stories play out on film for all but the most hardened and cynical of viewers. Credit Affleck and Pine (more so Affleck) and their committed performances here for making that triumph both credible and enjoyable. Are there clues as to how it all will play out in the end? Sure, but if you enjoy historical dramas like this, those clues should do little to diminish how much pleasure you’ll get from this film.
Are they there yet?
But for all the sterner stuff shown by the characters as they’re written in The Finest Hours, by the film’s final third it begins to sink under the weight of all it builds up in the early going. It’s matter of pacing and editing — as currently cut, it may feel to more impatient audiences as though they’ve been lost among the waves with Bernie and his crew for hours, or it may seem even more impossible that a tanker missing its entire front end could stay above those same waves for so long.
The choice to extend these sequences feels deliberate; after all, it’s about just how much all these brave souls both out at sea and back at home had to endure in the course of that horrible night off the coast of Cape Cod. But dragging it out also results in some of the more melodramatic subplots feeling even more forced. Does it all feel contrived and “Hollywood-ized”? No, but in that final third it definitely starts approaching that territory.
Again, because at its heart it’s an underdog story, it’s hard not like The Finest Hours on some basic level. There is also something to be said for seeing it in theaters, as the special effects work depicting the waves and the storm no doubt will be far more impressive in that medium than they might be on your home TV. So yes, assuming you don’t get seasick watching films about storms at sea and ships sinking, The Finest Hours may well be worth your box office dollar, especially if you don’t mind your movies being a bit predictable.
The Finest Hours
Starring Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Holliday Grainger, John Ortiz, Kyle Gallner, John Magaro and Eric Bana. Directed by Craig Gillespie.
Running Time: 117 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of peril.