Film Review | The Finest Hours Has All The Elements of a Great Seafaring Drama

Directed by Craig Gillespie.
Starring Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Holliday Grainger and Eric Bana

The Finest Hours Poster -
The Finest Hours Poster Source

Feb 18th, 1952 – a massive storm (a nor’easter) hits the seas off the coast of Chatham, Massachusetts and tears the SS Pendleton, a T2 tanker, in two. With the bow section and all seamen in it lost, it falls upon engineer Ray Sybert to try and keep the stern afloat long enough to allow the Coast Guard rescue the 33 men trapped in the remains of the crippled vessel. In Chatham the US Coast Guard launch a daring rescue; Coxswain Bernie Webber leads a four-man crew in a wooden lifeboat out into the teeth of a storm as fierce as any on record. All accept that it is a suicide mission yet with radio contact lost between the Pendleton and the mainland, Webber knows that his crew are the only hope those 33 sailors have at survival.

I come from a coastal area in North Wexford. As a child my Sunday’s were spent down on the beach, paddling in the surf and climbing sand dunes. The RNLI station stood on the shoulder of the pier head and often I’d watch as the crewmen trained or as they mustered to venture out to some vessel in trouble on the horizon. The locals knew the stories of the RNLI, the tragedy of the Helen Blake lifeboat crew, a South Wexford lifeboat where, in 1914, nine of the fourteen-man crew died while trying to save the crew of the stricken vessel The Mexico off the Keeragh Islands. And we knew of the loss of lifeboat man Fintan Sinnott in the late 1970’s, drowned on a Christmas Eve while answering a hoax mayday call. These men were heroes, whose job it was to risk their lives to try and save the lives of others in peril on the sea. In The Finest Hours Chris Pine puts it quite succinctly to his crew, as waves continue to swamp the lifeboat and conditions deteriorate, “It’s our job to go out, no-one says we gotta come back.” These are the men that should be celebrated. Keep Thor and Batman and Iron Man and all the rest of them, these are real heroes. It’s a shame then that The Finest Hours is just not that good a film.

On paper The Finest Hours has the key ingredients required to create a heart-stopping and heart-wrenching film about rescue on the sea. It features courage against great adversity, a spectacular rescue attempt, a lifeboat captain looking to banish his own demons of a rescue gone wrong, a seaman who doesn’t command the respect of his crew but is tasked with saving their lives and the loved one’s waiting on land for word of rescue from the long, ringing radio silence of a ship lost at sea. And to tie all these elements together and add a little bit of extra pathos, this film is based entirely on a true story. Yet strangely enough, though the CGI is absolutely stunning – the initial breaking of the Pendleton is spectacularly realised and drew more than a few gasps from the audience – this film is sadly devoid of any real sense of danger or peril. The tension is just not there, nor is the emotional punch. What is truly disappointing though is that all these undercooked elements were attempted – a 36 foot long wooden lifeboat navigating waves that tore a 707 foot steel tanker in two should create its own natural drama, the sight of the jagged hull of this tanker bobbing up and down like a bottle cap in furious seas and its crewmen fighting for survival should illicit some emotional response, the crowding together of a coastal community, who know the situation of men lost at sea all too well, around a crackling radio should pull a heartstring or two. But sadly and somewhat inexplicably, these moments do not convey the necessary drama or connection at all. Where Wolfgang Petersen’s The Perfect Storm hit you right in the feels every chance it could and allowed the audience feel every crash of the waves and every swell of the ocean, The Finest Hours seems very pedestrian altogether. I think an indication as to why this is can be found on the poster of the film, just above the title reads two words – Disney Presents.

The Finest Hours is in cinemas now in 3D -
The Finest Hours is in cinemas now in 3D Source

The Finest Hours feels very much like one of those sporting films Disney has produced in the last few years – Million Dollar Arm, Invincible, Miracle. The Rookie, Glory Road, Remember the Titans etc. Each of those films featured a sporting event, a David and Goliath episode where great adversity was stared down by a courageous few who ultimately triumphed. All based on a true story. Disney does not make downers, they don’t do peril. Disney couldn’t make a The Perfect Storm-style film and that ultimately is what hamstrings The Finest Hours. You know from the poster alone that this film isn’t going to tell you a sad story. While saying that and highlighting that this film comes from the Disney School of thought, it must be stressed that The Finest Hours is based on what is believed to be the greatest single wooden boat rescue in the history of the US Coast Guard, these men existed, these events actually happened and you would be doing a disservice to the survivors and those lost at sea by embellishing their story or adding mechanics to crank the sob factor to the max. It is not the story that is at fault here, but the story telling. It is let down by how the plot is allowed unfold and no amount of CGI and impressive set pieces can remedy the fact that the audience has not been armed with enough of an emotional connection to engage with the characters on screen.

It is visually well put together, the 1950’s small town America vibe is very well realised, it feels like a film that could have been shot in ’52, it is unfussy and doesn’t try to be anything other than a rescue film. It’s not about redemption or forgiveness or trying to prove a point, it is simply about men lost at sea. Maybe if it had mined Webber’s back-story a little deeper or explored Sybert’s concerns with the ship a little further then it would have been a stronger film. But then, would it have been a film about the rescue of the survivors of the SS Pendleton at all?

Universally, the cast is strong. Chris Pine is solid and channels his inner Tom Hanks to make Bernie Webber the All American everyman. He struggles with his inner demons, where his attempts during the previous winter  to save a stricken crew failed and local lives were lost. He does it well, but there are only so many sheepish glances you can take. Holliday Grainger, Webber’s girl on dry land, is a step above the stereotypical teary love interest waiting by the radio for word, actively challenging the commanding officer in one of the standout scenes in the film. Casey Affleck is his usual whispery self, the detached engineer Sybert who fights against the raging seas to keep the stern of the ship afloat. He is the only character who successfully impresses upon the audience his concern at the situation, resigned to futility. Both Pine and Affleck are searching for some element of respect, Affleck making a better fist of it than Pine. Ben Foster, for me one of the greatest actors of his generation, is unfortunately wasted here. His character is underdeveloped and the audience is never sure if he respects Webber or not, whether he goes to sea with Webber because it is his duty or to help him. His Massachusetts drawl is a little over-pronounced too, making some of his few lines unintelligible.

The Finest Hours will entertain you; for those who love a true story rescue film then you will probably enjoy this, but for anyone looking for something more, for tension or edge of the seat drama and excitement, you will be sadly disappointed.

The Finest Hours in in cinemas now. Check out the trailer below.

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