I will probably never watch The Finest Hours again. That’s not a put down; the film is fine, and I enjoyed watching it the one time. But it’s very much a one timer, a movie that gives you what it has on that first go-round and that, by the end, you’re pretty ready to leave behind. It’s what they used to call programmers - movies that you could slot in either the A or B role in a double feature. Good enough to be the topliner, not so good that a bunch of other pictures couldn’t take its place.
The Finest Hours is like that - a good movie right down the middle, a film that never rises to exceptionalism and never quite dips to being bad (although a soggy third act threatens to sink it all, if you’ll excuse the damp punnery). It’s carried largely on the charm of its leads and its old-fashioned sense of understated heroism, and it’s simply fine.
The year is 1952, on Cape Cod. Coast Guard Boatswains Mate First Class (I just copied it down, I don’t know what it means) Bernard Webber (Chris Pine) has just met the love of his life. She’s Miriam (Holliday Grainger), a dynamo unlike many other women of the time. She is aggressive - she takes the first kiss, she asks Bernie to marry her - and she won’t bow down to anyone else’s idea of how a girlfriend or a wife should behave. Bernie and Miriam are engaged to be married when a massive storm blows in, wreaking havoc. A massive oil tanker is split in half out at sea, and all Coast Guard units up and down the coast are activated for a massive rescue. But it turns out a second tanker has also been split in half, and there are only a handful of men available to brave the rough seas in a tiny boat to save 32 lives. It’s a true story, by the way.
The narrative of The Finest Hours is cut in three, with each section highlighting a different kind of corny heroism. For Bernie it’s the bravado to take on a suicide mission - to get to the sinking tanker he must attempt to cross a sandbar that we are told is impossible to cross in rough weather. For Miriam, coming to grips with Bernie’s dangerous job, it’s being part of a community that stands together to support its heroes. And on the sinking torn asunder tanker Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) - the assistant engineer and the only surviving officer when the front half of the tanker goes under - has to find a way to lead the scared men in an effort to buy every possible minute to get them closer to rescue.
Director Craig Gillespie is at his best when dealing with what’s happening on the tanker. He wrings every bit of tension out of the impossible situation, and his storytelling is so clear that I felt like I understood everything that was happening, even when characters were just running around opening valves. The screenplay by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson feels authentic when it comes to all things nautical. I love being immersed in a world with which I’m not familiar, and the world of the engine room on the tanker was a joy to discover.
Chris Pine has a fine presence, which is good because his Bernie Webber is a man of few words and almost no self-assertiveness. He doesn’t even decide on his own suicide mission - he’s assigned it by his goofus commanding officer (Eric Bana, showing up for three days of work). Webber is such a go-with-the-flow, follow regulations guy that he doesn’t take any outs offered to him - he has been assigned this suicide mission, and he will take it. He assembles a ragtag crew and out they go.
This stuff should be compelling, but Gillespie leans too heavy on the CGI here. There are only so many times we can watch the 36 foot motor lifeboat go completely under a computer generated wave before it all becomes samey. While the tension on the tanker is varied and the emotion on shore is complex, the main hero story is plodding - the guys just keep going. And keep going. Pine spends about half the movie pushing a lever back and forth, shouting through a tiny window and having buckets of water thrown in his face. It’s no eating bison liver, but it certainly looks like an uncomfortable shoot.
More interesting is the business back on shore; what first feels like a female subplot shoe-horned in slowly reveals itself to be a vital piece of the puzzle. Grainger is terrific, with an old-fashioned starlet’s face and energy - she could be doing screwball comedy - and without her it’s possible that these sequences would become terminally trite. The way the people of the Cape come together, the way that the small town residents get over past tragedies and grudges and spring into action helping one another and preparing to support the survivors - if any - is perhaps the most inspirational part of The Finest Hours. You could make a whole movie just from this stuff, and you could make a whole movie just about the tension and terror on the tanker.
So it’s weird that the rescue boat stuff is the least interesting business in the whole movie. What’s worse is that once the rescue boat makes it past that dangerous bar the film loses all its energy; the three narratives had been building energy and they all simultaneously sputter out. By the time the actual rescue happens everything is anti-climactic and the film drifts into port.
The heroes in The Finest Hours aren’t tough guys or macho men; they’re all little dudes, skinny and unsure of themselves (or women). They’re people doing their jobs and doing their best, people who never imagined themselves in these kinds of situations. That heroism is uplifting because it’s the kind of heroism we hope to find in ourselves, but that we can never know until we are truly tested.
As a one-and-done viewing experience I enjoyed The Finest Hours. There’s a better movie to be made from the events, perhaps, but there’s no more earnest a film that could be made, that’s for sure. It’s heart-warming to sit through a movie where the good guys are unambiguous and the stakes are obvious and clear cut. We live in a complicated, murky world and sometimes it’s comforting to see goodness displayed in such black and white terms.