Movie review: The Finest Hours
The story of a split oil tanker off the Massachusetts coastline looks fantastic but leaves a slick of limp scenes and dramatic debris floating in its wake
The Finest Hours
Starring: Chris Pine, Holliday Grainger, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Eric Bana
Directed by: Craig Gillespie
Running time: 117 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
By Katherine Monk
Movies about old briny are a genre unto themselves, which is why The Finest Hours feels a lot like The Perfect Storm, In the Heart of the Sea, The Poseidon Adventure and just a hint of Gilligan’s Island all rolled into one sticky piece of salt water toffee.
Based on the true story of a high seas rescue from the early ‘50s, this big-budget movie from Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) tells the story of an oil tanker called The Pendleton. Caught by bad weather just miles off the New England coastline, the ship split apart in heavy seas. One half sunk immediately, but the stern stayed afloat, leaving half the crew to fight for their lives with very few options.
Their only real chance at survival would be a rescue from the Coast Guard, but they didn’t even have time to send out a mayday call before the bridge sank to the bottom of the ocean. By sheer luck, someone spotted the cloven vessel during a momentary break in the weather, prompting a rescue attempt by a young Coast Guard captain named Bernie Webber.
The whole yarn was a major news event, but because this story happened in the years following the Second World War, most of us have no idea how it ended — which is the one thing that actually works in director Gillespie’s favour.
He can milk the suspense for all it’s worth, and that’s exactly what he does. First, he offers a laborious set-up by pulling us into the personal lives of its characters, then he spits us out into the open ocean surrounded by large swells of special effects.
The dramatic design is totally acceptable, but for all the crests and troughs before us, the movie feels incredibly flat.
The biggest flaw is pacing. The film starts off slowly with a romantic line regarding Captain Webber, played here by Star Trek captain Chris Pine. Webber has just begun a courtship with a woman named Miriam (Holliday Grainger). He’s falling for her, but she’s the one who finally asks for his hand in marriage, prompting all the boys at the Coast Guard station to tease Bernie and question his courage.
Within a few senselessly extended scenes of snow falling, back stories about failed rescues and the requisite shots of aging sailors shaking their heads about trying to “make it over the bar in this weather would be a suicide mission,” we watch Bernie and his mates climb into a 36-foot wooden cruiser in 60-foot seas.
Their first challenge would be to make it over the raging shallows where the wave height gets exponentially higher, and the second would be to find the Pendleton and its crew.
While all this is going on, the crew of the Pendleton — headed by Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) — is forced to find a way of steering the split stern onto a shoal before it sinks into the abyss.
As one might expect, Gillespie goes back and forth between the two crews, digging drama from under the fingernails of their desperate labours. Bernie’s character is moving through the arc of The Perfect Storm, while Affleck’s character is lost in the interpersonal bickering of The Poseidon Adventure.
Because the special effects are so convincing, the movie delivers all the visual awe we demand from great adventure stories. Yet, for all the money they spent on crashing waves and surging floods of water in an engine room, there are a few things that drain the frame of authenticity.
For instance, this whole story takes place during a hurricane-strength winter storm. They show the snow swirling and let us hear the wind howling, but when Miriam walks out of the Coast Guard station without a coat — we don’t see a single goosebump. In fact, half the time, the people supposedly freezing in the snow look sweaty.
It’s a small thing, but it means we never feel the elements in our bones, and the elements are our only real villain — which means the movie starts listing toward the halfway mark.
Gillespie tries to compensate by developing side plots about Miriam, and collegial scuffles between the boys in the barracks, but with so many different gusts of dramatic wind swirling at once, the movie starts to move in circles as it tries to close in on the central rescue attempt.
Pine, Grainger and Affeck are the bright points in this murky action movie. They find a way to make all the cliché feel fresh, but great players such as Eric Bana and Ben Foster didn’t stand a chance. They had a handful of lines to work with, and every one of them feels like it came out of a can, all colourless and mushy.
It’s too bad, because the craft side of this movie is stunning: Great sets, incredible costumes and fully realized period production design make it all look so classy. Had the script been as confident, and tried harder to be real instead of dramatic, this really would have delivered some finest screen hours.
I mean, what captain says “right and left” instead of “port and starboard” when he’s at the helm?
Not to get too fussy about it, but it’s small stuff like this that puts a tiny hole in the hull. As an escapist action movie, The Finest Hours is perfectly fine — but as a heartfelt drama about heroes who risk everything to save a stranger — The Finest Hours takes an extraordinary story and renders it ordinary.
THE EX-PRESS, January 29, 2016