The finest aspect of The Finest Hours is that the filmmakers kept it under two hours. This may sound like a backhanded compliment, but I really did enjoy most of this true story about the Cape Cod Coast Guard’s 1952 rescue of thirty-two men left floating on a foundering oil tanker in the middle of a brutal blizzard. Ever since the overlong Titanic broke box records, we’ve been conditioned for films in the disaster genre to last upwards of three hours. While The Finest Hours takes its time setting up its hero Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), his love interest (Holliday Grainger), the impending storm, and some group dynamics on both boats (the oil tanker and Webber’s Coast Guard crew), it’s done relatively efficiently so that we can get to the rescue mission. That’s where the film really shines on a technical and dramatic level.
Even though we know the rescue will ultimately be successful (it is a Disney film after all), the ocean during a storm in the middle of the night is a formidable and downright scary antagonist. As it whips the little rescue boat any which way it pleases in almost zero visibility conditions, it’s apparent how much luck played a part in their ultimate success. These scenes are reminiscent of Pacific Rim, which also used nightfall to make the ocean scenes more ominous and realistic. All the parts out at sea look great, and while I was expecting to spend much more time watching the crews overcome various obstacles in order to stretch the story, it’s a pleasant surprise when they make contact and you realize the mission is nearly complete. I was prepared for more filler, but the trip there is so well done that you don’t even realize that most the movie has passed, which is truly rare these days. So while it may sound like an insult when I say that my favourite part was when it ended, it’s not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because the middle of the film is so engrossing that I barely noticed the passage of time, which is how you know a film is really working.
That being said, most of the landlocked dramatic scenes land pretty flat. Webber becomes engaged to his sweetheart literally as the first flakes of the blizzard begin to fall. It’s an example of that narrative efficiency I mentioned earlier actually hurting the film. While I appreciate wanting to get to the meat of the story, the characters seem to be having two completely separate conversations here in order to set up A and B plot lines. While she talks about the impending marriage, he talks about the impending storm, yet no logical correlation is made between the two. As time is spent on the romantic element, it’s clear that Grainger’s fiancee character will become the audience’s touchstone on land. We watch her basically play Liv Tyler’s Armageddon character and get into awkward confrontations with the Coast Guard’s commanding officer (Eric Bana). Unfortunately, Bana and Grainger’s adopted accents also distract from any weight the scene is supposed to carry.
Speaking of accents, in a cast in which almost everyone is playing Bostonians, it’s always nice to see an Affleck who can actually pull it off. Casey Affleck plays the first assistant engineer who was responsible for keeping the tanker afloat until rescue came. It’s a welcome departure to see Ben’s little bro cast in a heroic role like this. It goes against type but works well, as Affleck makes interesting a part which on paper probably read like a pale imitation of Robert Shaw’s Quint from Jaws. He reminds us that not all heroes look like Chris Pine, but again, this is a Disney movie, so the main hero still needs to look like Chris Pine. Pine gives an odd yet decidedly stiff performance, almost has if his face has been frozen by cold winds or Botox. He is not the cocky swashbuckling Captain Kirk we’re used to seeing him play, but a much meeker rule follower, which doesn’t suit him as well. At least he doesn’t lay the Boston accent on too thick as he and his fellow Bostonians talk about getting to a different kind of bar. In this case, the often referred to but never really explained bar (or “ba'”) refers to the large mass of sand or earth, formed by the surge of the sea, making navigation extremely dangerous, not the local Harvard Bar. The recuse mission never should have made it past the bar, so watching them do so is definitely one of the film’s highlights.
The other against type assignment here, perhaps even more inspired than Affleck, is getting director Craig Gillespie to helm this beast. Gillespie has an interesting career trajectory, beginning with Mr Woodcock and Lars and the Real Girl in 2007 before moving to TV for 6 episodes of United States of Tara, then back to movies with the Fright Night remake and Disney’s Million Dollar Arm (plus the obscure made for TV movie Trooper in between those last two). While there are some solid efforts there, there’s nothing in Gillespie’s past filmography to suggest he could handle such a special effects heavy project, but he pulls it off quite well. It’s just unfortunate that he couldn’t have infused the land scenes with some more of the humour and humanism he demonstrated in his early work.
The Finest Hours is an often exhilarating tale of heroism that doesn’t overstay its welcome. While it’s safe to assume liberties were taken to adapt the story for the screen, there’s no denying the fact that this was indeed a case of true bravery demonstrated by four men who risked their lives to save thirty two strangers. It’s actually surprising that this is the first time these events have been dramatized. While I wouldn’t recommended it to anyone prone to sea sickness (I saw it last night and still don’t have my land legs back), The Finest Hours is a fine way to spend a couple hours.