Traversing the dangerous waters of January release season is an unenviable task, but luckily, The Finest Hours represents a momentary break in this month-long storm. While Craig Gillespie’s voyage is no masterclass in seafaring cinema, he’s able to suitably navigate Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias’ source novelization with glimmers of cinematic gravitas.
It’s a larger-than-life story that unfolds with definite “WOW” factors, built on the shock and awe of sheer survival instincts. Writers Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson pay tribute to the unwavering resiliency of our heroes, but, in an expected turn of events, they also unnecessarily bloat the film with safe-coasting dramatics. Like I said, it’s a perfectly fine two hours at sea – nothing more, nothing less.
Chris Pine stars as the iron-willed Bernie Webber, a heroic Coast Guard angel who braved fierce conditions to save 32 stranded tanker crewmen in 1952. Only half of the tanker remained after vicious waves ripped the ship in two, leaving crew members without any from of control. Of course, Webber wouldn’t have located the rig without engineer Ray Sybert’s (Casey Affleck) brilliant direction from inside the vessel, which bought precious time for Webber’s personal mission. These two men fought against all odds to ensure a miraculous rescue that’ll undoubtedly resonate through history, because they never considered failure an option. Not once.
Plainly stated, The Finest Hours does everything it’s supposed to. There’s no shortage of inspiration, and performances keep us tucked neatly in the 1950s. Heroics are on blast, characters wear nicely-pleated pants, and Gillespie has no trouble blending animated vessel shots with metallic settings from the USS Pendleton’s inner belly. We’re never ripped away from the tremendous task at hand, but in true blockbuster fashion, over-dramatic monologues and a forced love interest make their way into a script that’s better kept at sea.
It’s nothing to cry over, but Holliday Grainger’s Miriam seems jammed into Bernie Webber’s story only for Oorah-feminist moments, and an inevitably touching return home for Webber. She tries so hard to be something more than a worried fiancée, and even with a enviable backbone, her attempts at gender advancement are weightless and too boldly outlined. She’s not a terrible character, just a wooden inclusion into a much more intriguing story about half a boat that’s currently drifting aimlessly at sea. But this is Hollywood, and historical recounts need emotional undercurrents to keep audiences intrigued – or so studio executives believe.
The Finest Hours succeeds most when distracting audiences with relentless determination, which rightfully surges through every character. One can marvel at Sybert’s ability to become a life-saving handyman, as well as Webber’s wave-conquering maneuvering at sea. We ride high on feelings of victorious achievement, and can ignore our obvious knowledge of the film’s hug-worthy ending. I mean, Webber’s excursion is based on a true story after all (so no surprises here), but impending conclusions can still pack a punch with enough passionate investment. Gillespie cares more about honoring those selfless icons than telling a thrilling tale – which is both commendable and detrimental.
A solid cast ensures that this sturdy-looking boat never sinks, led by the everyman charms of Casey Affleck’s mechanic guru. Bernie Webber is billed as the film’s star, and there’s no argument that Pine’s nervous lover stands strong as a leading character, but I felt more movement in Affleck’s struggle. Pine slaps a gruff New England accent on and steers a boat, but Affleck finds himself fighting against a busted hull, lending to an extremely physical performance that keeps half his ship afloat.
The supporting cast surrounding these two have their moments of comical guidance, stoic reassurance, and paranoid doubt (as predicted). Ben Foster resonates most as Webber’s co-captain at sea, with Kyle Gallner and John Magaro impress as their younger first-mates. All of them are likable sailors, complete with old-timey New England twangs, and as their small cruiser dives underwater like an open-faced submarine, you can watch a connective bond grow tighter and tighter between the four.
Inside the boat, far more differing personalities bounce around the closed, claustrophobic container. Michael Raymond-James plays your resident doubter, fighting Sybert’s every suggestion, while John Ortiz embodies the complete opposite pacifist. A surprisingly more jacked Josh Stewart turns up as Affleck’s mumbling sidekick, Graham McTavish competes for the strongest Grandpa award, and Eric Bana mistakes power for understanding – all stellar in their second-hand roles.
Much like Bridge Of Spies, you won’t leave the theater blown away, but as far as January releases go, Disney’s The Finest Hours is like a shining beacon in a hazy fog. No single aspect vigorously excels, but like a well-oiled machine, each component of this whirring engine does its job cleanly and clearly, steering audiences out of harm’s way. At the very least, you’ll walk away fulfilled and revitalized, shaken awake by a story of astounding triumph – and that’s an awful nice feeling for this time the of year.
The Finest Hours chugs along with purpose, but could have been a much more thrilling rescue if it had a tighter focus on the seafaring action.