The Finest Hours finished fourth at the weekend box office and likely won’t gain more of an audience as moviegoers catch up on Oscar nominees and Star Wars, while new releases continue to hit theaters. That’s too bad, because this is a pretty good movie which is probably better enjoyed on the big screen.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that director Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm) and three screenwriters don’t trust what’s an amazing story by itself, along with a surprisingly impressive cast assembled to dramatize it.
The Finest Hours recounts the 1952 Coast Guard rescue of 32 crew members from the SS Pendleton, an oil tanker that broke in half off the coast of Chatham, Mass during a brutal nor’easter. A team of four Guardsman were sent out on what looked like a suicide mission, taking a small boat meant to hold 10 to 12 people against high winds, frigid temperatures and 60-foot waves. (The majority of that Coast Guard crew was sent to rescue a different oil tanker that had also split in two during the storm.)
That seems like enough material for a movie, doesn’t it? Instead, the script tacks on a romance that’s surely intended to attract a wider audience, but ends up slowing the movie down and taking away from the far more interesting aspects of the film. What should have been a subplot at best is built as the centerpiece of the story. (Presumably, everyone potentially lost at sea has someone waiting for him, who would mourn his death. Of course, one person is the hero of the story and thus gets the most focus.)
Yet the movie begins with crewman Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) on a blind double-date with his friend and fellow officer, meeting Miriam (Holliday Grainger), the woman who eventually becomes his fiancée. The fact that she asks him to marry her is a point other officers use to question Webber’s manliness at one point in the story. (He’s also haunted by a failed rescue from a couple years earlier.) But it also serves to show that Miriam doesn’t follow traditional roles, which causes some trouble at Webber’s Coast Guard station.
Meanwhile, there is a far bigger story going on. The Pendleton was already in bad shape due to shoddy repair, which we quickly learn from a poor weld in the ship’s hull that is sure to burst open. The weld is “humming,” according to the chief engineer Sybert (Casey Affleck), a sign that the ship is straining under the speed which the stubborn captain insists upon traveling through the storm. Sybert stares at the weld pensively, knowing that something bad is going to happen. It’s only a matter of time.
Affleck is the standout of the film, portraying an engineer who simply goes about his job quietly and thoughtfully without mingling with other members of the crew. That hasn’t endeared him to his mates, who aren’t inclined to listen to his plans when the ship breaks apart. (One of the best scenes in the movie is the moment when a crewman goes to the deck to investigate the damage, which is far greater than anyone could imagine.) But circumstances dictate that Sybert’s solution is the only viable option remaining, and he assumes the leadership role he previously preferred to avoid.
For nearly two-thirds of the movie, what’s happening on the Pendleton feels like the far more compelling story. Was The Finest Hours going to be yet another example of a film that strangely decided on the wrong narrative or characters to follow? (This was my primary issue with Sicario, for instance.) The inner workings of a ship’s crew, the schism between the deck department and the engineering staff (most evident from the captain’s refusal to acknowledge the engineers’ plea to slow down), and the politics that exist in such an environment — which we get a hint of from the tensions between Sybert and the engineers he hasn’t previously talked to — all make for rich material.
But what makes this a story worth making into a movie is the rescue. And eventually, Gillespie gets around to making Webber and his mates’ attempt to find what’s left of the Pendleton with a boat nowhere near suited for such a job, against weather conditions which will almost certainly overwhelm them. Webber is told that he has virtually no chance of making it out to the Pendleton, let alone rescuing its passengers, despite the insistence of his commanding officer (Eric Bana). Some townsfolk even suggest to Webber that he merely try to go out only so far before turning back. If he goes out there, he’s not coming back. This is the stuff from which heroes are made.
Since Pine basically looks like a comic book hero come to life, that makes him perfectly cast to play Webber. His character isn’t actually terribly interesting, but that’s more on the script than any flaw in Pine’s performance. This is a guy who always wants to do the right thing; if someone can be saved, he’s going to try. Webber is initially hesitant to accept Miriam’s proposal because he doesn’t want to burden her with being married to a Coast Guard officer. He’s not cocky, like Captain Kirk, the role for which Pine is best known. Eventually, that persistence and sincerity wins over a skeptical crewmate (a terribly underused Ben Foster) who thinks Webber is crazy to keep going once the boat has lost its windshield and compass.
Is the story predictable? Well, the movie is called The Finest Hours, not Worst Coast Guard Decision Ever. But if you really want to avoid spoilers, make sure not to read the historical accounts of the Pendleton and the rescue mission to save its crew (the greatest small-boat rescue the Coast Guard has ever made) that can be found all over the Internet. And consider that there might not really be a story if someone didn’t live to tell it. Some impressive special effects and a strong cast do that story justice, resulting in a movie that deserves to be seen by more people.