The Finest Hours
Another that I missed in cinemas when it was out here, to my regret, that has now become available via streaming options. While not particularly familiar with the work of Craig Gillespie, here we have all the hallmarks of a potential smash success: a well-regarded leading man, a plot ripped from the pages of daring-do history, the opportunity for some expansive CGI set-pieces, etc. But, as far as the critics were concerned, The Finest Hours was more boring than box office, and fell away from notice very quickly. Was the lukewarm reception justified, or was The Finest Hours the kind of film more worthy of recognition than it might initially appear?
The north-eastern coast of America, 1951: Young Coast Guard sailor Bernie Webber’s (Chris Pine) worries about his sudden engagement to Miriam (Holliday Grainger) have to be put aside in the face of a tremendous storm, that has left the oil tanker SS Pendleton ripped in two, miles off-shore, it’s remaining crew, led by engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) working desperately to stop the aft section from sinking. With grim memories of a failed mission fresh in his mind, Webber is sent out as the leader of a four-man crew, tasked with carrying out a rescue that could as easily see them all vanish into the sea than save anybody.
The Finest Hours has so much potential. There’s a real feel of an old-school black-and-white era adventure drama here: you can almost imagine some steely-eyed leading man of that era forcing his boat forward through the monochrome, with a situation on the doomed vessel ripe for a kind of Hitchcockian approach in terms of presented tension and heroism. But The Finest Hours just can’t make good on that potential, and instead comes off as something made with not enough care for the story being told and the manner in which it was shown.
Front and centre is the problem with Chris Pine’s Webber. It must have been a faithful adaptation of the real man (barring Pine’s age, nearly 15 years too old), but such an adaptation is bound to leave the audience cold: this nervous, awkward and altogether unimpressive figure, who does little talking about anything, is not the man to anchor such a plot around. He seems positively simple. You need to really get a feel for Webber, especially in terms of his relationship with Marline and the tragedy in the near past that must be both a driving force and ever-present fear for the current situation. But Webber doesn’t offer that: we just get too many subsidiary characters talking about his previous failure while he barely mentions it at all, while he himself is confined too much by the choices of director and actor.
Pine is far from the magnetic and exciting presence he usually is here. The shy, reserved Webber would have been better suited for an actor less at home in traditional action-adventures, as The Finest Hours’s languid pace presents it from being on the same level as a Star Trek or even The Perfect Storm, a film it is probably trying a lot harder to be like (but never getting close to those heights). When he blurts out “We all live or we all die” during the climactic rescue attempt, it never sounds like the kind of sentiment this character would be capable of coming out with. There are things you could have done to make Webber more interesting, like covering his lack of service in World War II and how that affects him, or having a slightly more emotional reaction to the things he is asked to do by a seemingly uncaring commanding officer.
Indeed, much more interesting is the situation on the Pendleton, with Casey Affleck ably filling the void created by Pine. His Sybert might not have much of a back-story, but he owns the screen whenever he is on camera, the kind of classic leading man I described above, taking to a leadership role by necessity and trying to get the men still alive to stay alive. On the Pendleton there are an array of different characters who, with more time, might well have been fascinating even if there is cliché aplenty: the big burly cook who annoys people with his singing, the tough old veteran working with a broken arm, the young kid in way too deep too early and the rebellious minded malcontent.
Stock characters for sure, but an interesting scenario could have been made out of them and their peril, working fast to keep the ship afloat while Sybert works the same for the crew’s morale. A great opening on-board the Pendleton, torn in two by the rough seas, is probably the films best visual moment, as we watch the fore section go dark and get swallowed up by the Atlantic, truly emphasising the gargantuan power of the dark sea.
But The Finest Hours just can’t well enough alone, siphoning off any narrative energy from these moments with constant turnings to Grainger’s Miriam just when things get interesting. Obviously finding room for a female presence in the film was a necessity, but she just doesn’t really do anything in The Finest Hours outside of the first ten minutes, with a car crash moment painfully out of place in the larger drama. And worse, the film rapidly proceeds to overload the Pendleton sections with too much of the expected, embracing mediocrity in script, direction and pace.
There’s a visual “ticking clock” in the form of air intakes slowly getting closer and closer to being submerged, but Gillespie decides he needs a musical ticking motif to really hammer the point home. An attempt at a one shot exploration of the rescue efforts is attempted, but comes off as a clumsy and uninspired was of doing things. And we never really get enough of an understanding of Sybert, with one other characters duly noting that he appears to not have much of a life outside of the ship, as if to excuse his lack of development. Where the film takes its sweet time in introducing us to Webber and Miriam, in a prologue of surprising length, the inciting incident on the Pendleton takes place barely two minutes after we first catch sight of the ship.
Back with Webber, along with a crew made up of Ben Foster’s gruff cynic, John Magaro’s randomly present seaman and Kyle Gallner’s rookie engineer, we get to see the drama of the effort to get out to the Pendleton, but again it falls short. Aside from being five to ten minutes too long, the attempt to get past “the bar” is hampered by the failure to educate the audience as to just what a sea bar is and why getting past this one is especially difficult: an old seadog gives Miriam the lowdown in a rapid fire manner, that must be incomprehensible to any audience member not intimately familiar with sailing. It amounts to getting a small boat through a series of rough waves, wherein The Finest Hours tries its utmost to be The Perfect Storm, and it rapidly becomes tedious as opposed to exciting.
There is no real evident bond between the men on the boat, and it doesn’t take long for the audience to start untangling themselves from the narrative. I’m thinking of something like Fury, similar insofar as large sections of it revolved around a closely knit group of men trying to stay alive in a small, confined space, a film that got both the essence of masculine comradery under strain and the natural tension that comes from such a scenario. The Finest Hours has a chance to do something similar in its two main plots, but it just can’t pull it off.
The players, Affleck excluded, just aren’t up for this. Grainger, while having a classic look that’s appropriate, can’t bring the right kind of life to a character as hopelessly side-lined as Marlene, and she’s matched by Rachel Brosnahan in the only other female role of note. Eric Bana looks truly bored in his role as the Coast Guard commander who never leaves his office, defined more by his southern drawl than anything else, with a small sub-plot on his lack of competence dropped fast when the third act comes around. And Beau Knapp, as Webber’s best friend, is literally side-lined, stuck on shore with a cold, falling out of the film fast after the first act.
There’s slapdashness to other parts of the production as well. There’s a brief underlying subplot regards Webber’s previous failure in a similar mission, with one character berating him for failing to save his brother in the earlier incident. This results in an awkward moment where the same dialogue gets repeated in two concurrent scenes without any real point the second time, as if the director was worried the audience wouldn’t get it. The script generally is quite underwhelming: one scene, where Miriam ends up repeating the same line to Eric Bana over and over is shockingly ineffective at what it is trying to do. Let’s not spend too long on the varied level of north-eastern accent either, with jumps from non-existent to incomprehensible (Affleck, the native Bostonian, a notable exception: it’s because of everyone else I thought his character was called “Seabird”).
The key evolution of the Webber/Miriam relationship seems to be about her reaction to the reality of his very dangerous job, but that gets no kind of resolution: a scene as Webber goes out, leaving behind a ringing phone being called by his fiancée, was a painfully forced moment that sums up the limp nature of the while sub-plot. And the attempts to make dramatic visual moments out of the rescue can’t keep up with the course of the film, with the constant underwater shots and close up conversations under deluges of rain getting truly tedious by the time the credits roll.
In the end it’s just so hard to really get into The Finest Hours, which fails to make the very most of its nominally great cast and the drama of the events it is depicting. The United States Coast Guard, long neglected in film, will have to go on waiting for the kind of adaption of their work that truly does justice to the enormity of its task, and the bravery of its oft unsung sailors. While The Finest Hours very occasionally shows glimpses of the kind of rip-roaring character focused action film it could have been, it gets bogged down all too easily by insipid romantic sub-plots, poor performances, sub-par direction, and a script that struggles to be impactful. There are far better sea rescue films out there, and better ways that The Finest Hours could have turned out. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).