The Finest Hours meets the standard of forgettable mediocrity typical of Disney-funded live-action dramas. We often hear people say, “Truth is stranger than fiction,” that things that happen in real life can often touch us or fascinate us in a deeper way than a story that somebody made up.
That doesn’t happen in The Finest Hours.
This nautical period piece, set in 1952, stars Chris Pine as Bernie Webber, a taciturn boatswain’s mate with the Coast Guard in Chatham, Massachusetts. He struggles with remorse—and a marred reputation—over a past incident in which he failed to save a capsizing ship. He has recently fallen in love with Miriam Pentinen (Holliday Grainger), but he remains reluctant to marry her and possibly make her a military widow. In a complete statistical fluke, two ships get torn in twain on the same night in a brutal nor’easter: the SS Fort Mercer and the SS Pendleton. Because the authorities learn about the former first, they divert all their resources thereto. It then falls to Bernie to gather up a crew of three subordinates to rescue the 30-plus surviving seamen of the Pendleton with naught but a boat built for only 12.
This film reeks of padding. It only has two significant conflicts. First, Bernie must “clear the bar”: navigate through Chatham Bar, a perilous, unpredictable stretch of shoals that separates the Chatham coast from the Pendleton. By repeatedly pointing out that Bernie already failed to do this once, this film manages to stretch the trepidation of this challenge out to insane proportions. Most of the first half of the film has characters cynically saying, “He’ll never pass the baa,” or, “He’ll get himself killed over the baa” (the characters’ Massachusetts accents make “bar” sound like that thing that sheep say). By the time the characters actually do clear the bar, we’ve grown tired of hearing about it.
The second conflict deals with rescuing the sinking crew from the Pendleton. The capsizing of the bow half killed every officer, leaving the survivors without a chain of command. Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), a knowledgeable but diffident enlisted mechanic, must convince the anxious survivors that their one hope for survival lies in running the ship aground so it can rest on firm shoals until help arrives.
The inept handling of this conflict proves the main downfall of The Finest Hours. The film depicts Sybert and Bernie as effectively the same character in two different situations. In a fashion typical of lazy reenactments of history, the film has one character played up as a main hero (two counting Sybert), then everyone else becomes a minor antagonist: cynical; pessimistic; pigheaded. The man vs. nature conflict has potential, but the man vs. deaf ears conflict drags the film out to the point that we root for nature.
The film struggles to keep its romantic subplot relevant. While Bernie risks his life, Miriam runs around Chatham panicking about her boyfriend to whoever will listen. This gets her into arguments with Bernie’s inexperienced boss, CWO Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana), an embittered military widow (Rachel Brosnahan), and an aggrieved fisherman (Matthew Maher). Look… I grew up in a military family; I understand the toll that it takes when I have to wait to know if a family member will ever come home again. But the film exaggerates and drags this subplot out to imply that it equals Bernie’s in scope, but it still fails because it makes Miriam look pushy and impotent. An hour of her hand-wringing doesn’t add tension or excitement. Only once, at the end, does Miriam ultimately have any effect whatsoever on the main plot.
It doesn’t help that the film mishandles the actually-relevant material. We meet two parallel motley crews, but we don’t get to know either crew. The poor sound mixing exacerbates this, as Carter Burwell’s domineering, schmaltzy score (he usually does so much better) and constant ambient sound drown out the abundant exposition. The net result: unnecessary noise drowning out unnecessary noise. Despite that the Fort Mercer rescue proved almost as spectacular as the Pendleton rescue in real life, we don’t even see the Fort Mercer in the film. That rescue takes place off-screen, and the film dismisses it by characterizing the head of that rescue as a dick.
Director Craig Gillespie seemed to believe that amping up the spectacle would save this movie from its weaknesses. It doesn’t. The sophisticated CGI looks convincing, but it can’t make a film interesting by itself. This film almost feels like a real 1952 film, though: it does that thing where gargantuan waves pound down continuously on the boat from afar… and the close-up shots just show a light drizzle. This jarring continuity robs the action of its punch. Worse, the film resorts to the all-too-played-out orange/teal color scheme for its entire second half. In that sense, it feels like 1952 as well, inasmuch as the narrow color palette almost feels like black & white. The best visuals the film has to offer come in the form of Grainger, who looks strikingly beautiful in 1952 makeup.
I’d watch a movie I out-and-out hated before I’d watch The Finest Hours again. At least I remember films I hate. Why watch something that will just go in one eyeball and out the other? This feels less like a movie than an episode of Rescue 911 with William Shatner replaced with Chris Pine (again!) and CGI waves splashed into the dramatizations. In a world with thousands of great movies and thousands of memorably bad movies, why bother with one you’ll just forget before you get out of the theater?Liked This? Share It!