'The Finest Hours'
Based on a remarkable Massachusetts Coast Guard rescue mission from 1952, ‘The Finest Hours’ is an attempt to revive old-timey adventure movies. It’s not just a period piece in terms of the costumes and props; the characters are all written as though they were pulled from a serialized magazine sold on the shelf of the local tobacconist next to the bubblegum and phosphates.
The movie’s depiction of human interaction is creaky at best and laughably wholesome at worst. (I kept waiting for someone to say “Golly gee.” Perhaps that’s being saved for the sequel). However, this is an action picture with some elements of disaster epic thrown in and the Disney production clearly provided one hell of an effects budget. Viewed purely as rip-roaring high seas entertainment, there’s fun to be had. It’s just a shame that the characters have to open their mouths between the acts of heroism.
Chris Pine stars as Bernie Webber, a humble Coast Guardsman with such intensely low self-esteem that he’s too nervous to ask the girl of his dreams (Holliday Grainger) to marry him, so she does it instead. How a man who looks like an action figure could possibly doubt his action hero status is never quite explained, but never mind. Bernie is also regularly belittled at work as a Coast Guard rescue captain. He’s on the B-team and is rarely trusted. However, during the night of a historic storm, two separate tankers are cut in half by raging waters and the deep fried boss (Eric Bana, stuck with a cornball Southern accent while the rest of the cast struggle with Boston talk) insists that Bernie lead a team to boat #2.
It’s a wild journey to be met by certain death, the type of thing that heroic stories are made of! Over on the ravaged tanker, Casey Affleck plays an an unpopular engineer who convinces his crew to take silly risks to stay afloat while they await rescue. So that’s two ocean bound action tales going on at once. Sounds stirring, right? Oh, there’s also a plot involving Grainger yelling at Bana for sending Pine out into the sea and also asking his permission for marriage. Not quite as exciting, but it takes up about as much screen time as the twin tragedies. Sigh…
Directed by the unpredictable Craig Gillespie (‘Lars and the Real Girl’, ‘Fright Night’), ‘The Finest Hours’ alternates freely from thrilling spectacle to cornball melodrama and the balance never quite feels right. The action scenes are excellent. Mixing green-screen, CGI, sets and actors getting pummelled with rain machines, Gillespie creates some intense and beautifully crafted set-pieces. The movie has ambitious filmmaking tricks – like a single tracking shot following a frantic game of telephone through several layers of a destroyed boat – as well as more simple action, suspense and tragedy scenes that all push the audiences’ buttons effectively and get pulses pounding. It’s glossy blockbuster spectacle, but in a way that feels grounded. Gillespie never stretches too far into comic book land to stretch credibility, always delivering visceral and real thrills. Things get intense and it’s hard not to get swept up.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the sequences that don’t feature any death-defying heroics. Despite being based on real people, the characters never feel like more than cardboard placeholders. Not for a second is it possible to buy Pine’s insecurity; he’s far better suited to playing hero. The supporting roles are filled by strong character actors like Eric Bana and the always excellent Ben Foster, but they rarely get much to do beyond grimacing with concern, starring off thoughtfully into the distance, or spitting out a heavy-handed monologue or three. Casey Affleck likely gets the most to work with as an engineer under pressure and comes off well, but he’s featured so infrequently that he tends to get lost in the shuffle. Worst of all is Grainger’s lovestruck and landlocked character. She’s a talented actress, but hampered by a completely generic love interest role. Whenever the film cuts from some extraordinary action sequence back to her small town concerns, momentum is lost and it’s hard not to groan.
What we have here is a well-meaning true life disaster picture that only really succeeds in delivering genre thrills. Director Gillespie cast his movie well, clearly hoping that the talented actors would bring life and personality to their stock characters and distractingly old-timey dialogue. Sadly, that rarely happens. The movie walks a fine line between the old-fashioned and the outdated without ever quite succeeding in overcoming its cheesy limitations. Thankfully, whenever the characters shut their mouths and engage in death-defying feats, the movie thrills in all the right places.
In a perfect world, it would be possible to buy an IMAX ticket to a supercut of all the action sequences (ideally not in 3D since the combination of poor conversion and underexposed cinematography is an eye soar). Alas, this world is far from perfect, so you’ll have to sit through the schmaltz while waiting for the good stuff. On the plus side, at least it’s easier to sit through than Ron Howard’s similarly corny high seas nonsense with Thor. So, I suppose that qualifies as a minor victory.