Go for the action. Skip the romance. Director Craig Gillespie has put a blow-out action film on screen that makes you hold your breath as long as the men being pounded by killer seas. But when the movie cuts to the lame love story, it drags its anchor. Adapted from the 2009 book by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias, “The Finest Hours” is a classic tale of men battling the forces of nature during an all but impossible rescue at sea.
Based on actual events, the film is set during the winter of 1952 when off the coast of Cape Cod two tankers have come apart during a vicious storm. Both are literally broken in half and while the entire rescue fleet races to the aid of the first tanker, no one realizes that there is a second ship, the SS Pendleton, also in dire distress. After the Coast Guard station is finally alerted, a young sailor named Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) is ordered out on a suicide mission to save the Pendleton’s survivors. The station’s commanding officer is an out-of-his-depth Southerner named Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana), but when he gives the order Bernie doesn’t blink. In similar stormy seas a fishing boat once went down with all hands and Bernie was unable to save any of them. He refuses to let that happen again. Commanding a crew of three he faces waves that would give the Ancient Mariner nightmares. “We all live or we all die,” he tells the soaking, skeptical men.
“The Finest Hours” is an old-fashioned movie. It isn’t hard to imagine Jimmy Stewart or Tyrone Power slapping on oilskins and setting out to rescue comrades on a sinking ship. But Chris Pine, a terrific “Star Trek” Captain Kirk, overdoes the “aw shucks” bit. More a symbol of the extraordinary courage of ordinary men than an actual human being, we never really get to know Bernie. Playing his fiancée agonizing over his fate is Holliday Grainger as Miriam, a fighting force all her own. Fearful for Bernie, she defies convention by invading the Coast Guard rec room for news and confronting the feckless Daniel Cluff. Miriam is another symbol, this time of the courage of women who must live with the uncertainty of their men’s fate in the knowledge that any day could be the day they don’t come home.
A gritty Casey Affleck plays engineer Ray Sybert, the antisocial cynic whose skills keep the broken Pendleton afloat long enough for Webber and his men to rescue them. Of all the actors Affleck makes the most of his one-dimensional role, adding a layered appeal to his tough guy persona. The counterpoint of Webber’s command of his boat racing through apocalyptic waves to Sybert’s command of the wreckage of his own ship trying to maintain it above water heightens the drama. But too many questions are left unanswered. Did Cluff order Webber to sea because he knew he could pull it off or is he recklessly allowing him to die? Under the Jimmy Stewart shtick, who exactly is Bernie Webber? Why are all these extraneous characters like Webber’s best friend Gus even in this movie? On the other hand if you like action at sea, forget the analysis and just enjoy.
See you at the movies!