Release: Friday, January 29, 2016
Written by: Scott Silver; Paul Tamasy; Eric Johnson
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Chris Pine just wants to be the captain of everything. And I guess that’s a good thing because every time his number is called he responds with some kind of grand gesture that usually involves multiple lives being saved under his extraordinary captainship. The Finest Hours isn’t exactly Star Trek but if he continues to shine in these capacities, I say let him have a crack at Captain Planet. (Certain captains are, of course, off-limits. Captain Jack Sparrow and Captain Phillips and Captain Morgan — they don’t need overhauls. They’re doing just fine without Pine.)
The Finest Hours isn’t so much interested in captainship per se (if you want to get technical, Pine’s role hews closer to coxswain than captain this time), but it is still a movie that champions leadership and courageousness. The only catch is Craig Gillespie directs a very Disney-friendly version of the events that comprised one of the most dangerous rescue missions in US Coast Guard history.
It’s February 18, 1952 and a brutal winter storm is tightening its grip on New England. After receiving a distress call from an oil freighter just off the coast, its hull cracked in half from battling twenty-plus-foot waves, Chatham Station Commander Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana, with an awkward southern accent) assigns the young and amiable Bernie Webber to the rescue mission, one that has all but been dismissed as more of a suicide mission by other, more experienced seamen.
Ignoring the cautionary tales of his elders, Webber puts together a four-person team with Richard P. Livesey (Ben Foster), third class engineman Andrew Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner) and Ervin Maske (John Magaro), a mailboy, joining him in his CG 36500. The most significant and perhaps most deadly obstacle will require Webber to maneuver the 30-foot life boat through violent surf crashing over shallow sand bars just off shore; passing through to open water has never been successfully executed in storm conditions. From there it’ll be a battle against high winds and impending darkness.
Bernie, of course, is soon to be marrying his beloved Miriam (Holliday Grainger) in April. Gillespie reminds us several times that if there’s any reason for Bernie to return home safely, it’s for her. Miriam isn’t a typical 1950s girl, she’s headstrong and demands to be kept informed during every step of the procedure. Miriam has little patience for dealing with gender roles and bureaucracy, so much so that she at one point walks right into Cluff’s office and demands he abandon the mission. Grainger toes the line between confidence and impertinence and while she is refreshing to watch, the question can’t help but rear itself: was the real Miriam Webber this pushy? And where does the line between fact and dramatic license blur? Even still, her defiance of rules and Bernie’s adherence to them has a nice symmetry.
The picture’s not complete until we’ve addressed Casey Affleck‘s meek and mild Ray Sybert, a brilliant engineer stuck in the bowels of the stranded SS Pendleton. The scrawny New Englander finds himself up against one of the greatest technical and physical challenges of his life as he sets about preventing the engine room from taking on more water. There are concerns like the pump flooding, losing power, losing steering ability, and then finally, losing crew.
Rather than drowning in the waves of mounting stress — they have only hours before they sink — Sybert sets about trying to solve the problem rationally. In some ways, The Finest Hours is actually more interested in these embattled blue collared fellas working as a well-oiled machine under Sybert’s semi-reluctant guidance. Despite these being the most politely-spoken New England-based seafarers we’ve ever met (thanks Disney), we understand fairly well Sybert is far from a chosen leader. Other voices are louder, stronger, more adamant. Affleck imbues his character with such quiet strength, a composure that no one else manages to summon.
The film is considerably less compelling when things aren’t falling apart. The Finest Hours won’t be remembered for its romance nor the acting in general. The trio of Pine, Affleck and Grainger have clearly put in the hours but the others, including Bana, leave hardly an impression at all. Somehow that’s okay if you focus on what good the film does. Even though it never breaches those depths of remarkable filmmaking, this optimistic and entirely earnest effort to recount a most unlikely rescue mission is still well worth watching.
Recommendation: The Finest Hours, hampered by a slow opening half but bolstered by heart-pounding action sequences in the middle and towards the end, is a mostly satisfying mixture of action and human drama. Based on the true story, the film feels most comfortable detailing the toils of the stranded freight crew rather than showing how the Coast Guard responded. A little strange then, that the film decides to credit the latter and ignore the former in a pre-credits photo montage. This film isn’t just about the Coast Guard’s decision to make a daring mission. It’s about enduring grave danger as well.
Running Time: 117 mins.
Quoted: “I’m not afraid of the water, Bernie. It just scares me at night, that’s all. You can’t see what’s underneath.”
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