With blockbuster franchises resting on the shoulders of larger-than-life heroes, and the heroes of Oscar-baity films typically being more issue-focused, it can be refreshing to see a story of ordinary people performing life-threatening acts of heroism. It’s a middle ground between two different types of popular films. But in order to stand out, these types of films have to do more than tell a solid story, and that is where The Finest Hours becomes something less than fine.
The Finest Hours adapts the true story of the SS Pendleton to film. The SS Pendleton, a T2 tanker, broke in half during a brutal storm in 1952. With nearly all of the active Coast Guardsmen in the area attempting to take care of another T2 tanker in the area that also managed to split in two during the same storm, Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) and a ragtag crew find themselves heading out to rescue the survivors of the Pendleton on their own.
To the film’s credit, this inspirational story is told without many of the clichés that these sorts of films tend to have. Their are no grand, sweeping heroic moments, or cheesy inspirational speeches. But there’s also nothing resembling depth here. There’s no real examination of anyone’s motivation in this film. It’s just a retelling of a simple story – a good one, and one that still stands as the largest small boat rescue in Coast Guard history, but a simple story regardless.
Chris Pine leads the film as Webber, and in his hands, Webber is a good man who’s soft-spoken and plays by the rules. That is it. The film makes sure audiences don’t forget it, because people will mention it repeatedly. To a degree, that’s fine, but the film doesn’t really explore why Bernie’s like this, which makes the inevitable point where he goes against the rules lack the weight it should have. And quite frankly, while Pine does a solid job of playing Webber, Pine’s strengths as an actor shine brightest when he has a bigger personality (and if it’s weird, even better). In this film at least, Webber is too bland for Pine.
And the rest of the characters in Webber’s story are just background players, outside of his fiancée, Miriam (Holliday Grainger). Miriam, though, feels like an afterthought – a decision somewhere in the scripting process to add in a decently prominent female character just for the sake of having one. When the film jumps to her, whatever momentum is on-screen grinds to a halt.
Thankfully, the film does take the time to show crew members of the Pendleton. The characters here are a little easier to remember, with the biggest impression coming from Casey Affleck’s Ray Sybert, the ship’s chief engineer. When the Pendleton snaps in half, the half with the ship’s commanding officers sinks quickly. Sybert reluctantly takes command of the ship, with many of the surviving crew members not supporting his decisions. Affleck completely sells that reluctance, and his taking command feels cautious and uncertain, in a way that works rather well.
From a technical perspective, The Finest Hours offers a solid take on a seafaring adventure. Director Craig Gillespie is at his best inside the Pendleton, which makes a solid case for the use of 3D. There’s one lengthy shot in particular that follows the crew shouting information from one member on the deck, all the way down to the engine room through a relay of other members. It gives a sense of just how enormous the ship is, and how large the damage is by comparison.
Gillespie is a bit more challenged with some of the other dramatic sea elements. Tracking ships through the storm is rather challenging, and while that fits to a degree with the stormy weather, some of the waves and the ways the Coast Guard team traveled over them seems hard to believe.
All that said, The Finest Hours is a solid enough film that tells a decent story. Nothing about the film makes it mandatory viewing for audiences, so it’s not exactly…well, fine, but for interested audience members, it should provide a satisfying way to spend a few hours. Especially in the wasteland that normally makes up January releases, that’s not nothing.