What “The Finest Hours” lacks in character development, it makes up for in spectacle. Craig Gillespie’s roaring, relentless Atlantic Ocean may as well have been directed by Poseidon himself. If only Gillespie’s decorated cast had mustered up half as much intensity as their inanimate counterpart.
“The Finest Hours” tells the tale of the incredible true story (stop me if you’re heard this one before) of a daring rescue attempt pulled off by a bunch of brave men against all odds. The would-be tragedy in question is the sinking of the Pendleton oil tanker during a 1952 blizzard off the coast of Cape Cod. On the tanker, Casey Affleck’s Engineer Ray Sybert takes charge after the ship’s captain is lost at sea. Coast guard officer Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) is chosen to lead the rescue, armed with only three additional crewmates and a 36-foot motorized lifeboat.
Bernie is an odd hero, as far as these stories usually go. Chris Pine plays up the aww-shucks shyness, but his performance is a bit too understated; I found myself wishing instead for Tom Hanks, that paragon of the heroic everyman, and probably the only actor who could infuse life into this one-dimensional character. Pine slides into the skin of a much brasher, much more arrogant captain— one James Tiberius Kirk— more smoothly than that of the passive, rather nebbish Bernie Webber.
When sent out on this suicidal rescue mission by station commander Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana), Bernie’s fellow officers urge him not to go, but he gives a doe-eyed shrug and apologetically follows orders; submitting to authority is just the way Bernie does things. He is also ribbed by his colleagues for requesting the commander’s permission to marry his lady love, Holliday Grainger’s Miriam (how quaint!), after she was the one who proposed marriage in the first place (the horror!). Still, everyone in the film insists on reminding us that Bernie is “a good man.” It’s a tiresome refrain, but it does stick— and by the end, I felt a twinge of affection for the man’s sheer perseverance.
While Bernie navigates the unfamiliar waters of his relationship with Miriam, Ray Sybert (Affleck) is tasked with coming up with a plan to save the remaining crewmembers of the sinking Pendleton until help arrives. This proves to be difficult, since no one seems to like him very much. This backstory is teased but never fully fleshed out, leaving Affleck and his supporting crewmates with a confusing amount of animosity. To be sure, Sybert’s grim persona does not exactly inspire confidence, either on the part of his crewmates or moviegoers. Still, Sybert knows the ship better than anyone, so the men choose to throw in their lot with their best chance of survival. Other supporting characters don’t fare as well either: Eric Bana’s commander is depicted as and verbally denounced as incompetent, but he’s not a typical blowhard, and it’s unclear how he ended up in his position at all. (Perhaps greatness was thrust upon him, as with Bernie?) Meanwhile, Ben Foster’s turn as one of Bernie’s rescue mission volunteers is essentially a still-life rendition of his IMDB profile page picture. I know you have other facial expressions, Ben!
Fortunately, the film’s special effects blow all thoughts of half-baked character development out of the water. The film was promoted in IMAX 3D, and for good reason: every mammoth wave that threatens to capsize Bernie Webber’s ant-like rescue boat looms like a merciless wall of sheer force, and the terrifying screech of dying machinery reverberates with each pounding of the Pendleton’s formidable hull. A booming score from the illustrious Carter Burwell (a 2016 Oscar nominee for “Carol”) heightens the drama even more.
“The Finest Hours” tries too hard (or not hard enough) to set up emotional arcs that don’t quite set sail. There’s a nice bit of parallelism with Bernie’s coast guard buddies and the tanker crew: both groups start out standoffish and vaguely resentful, only to come together in times of peril and dredge up much-needed camaraderie. But because of the lack of character insight, it doesn’t quite feel earned. What does feel earned is the rush of relief when the survivors step onto the dock after their rescue. It’s just a shame that the stellar cast couldn’t match the performance of the perfect storm.