Film review: The Finest Hours rescues itself with dramatic effects

Chris Pine stars as a reluctant hero in Disney’s The Finest Hours, a sea rescue action picture based on true events. Photo: Walt Disney Pictures Chris Pine stars as a reluctant hero in Disney’s The Finest Hours, a sea rescue action picture based on true events. Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

On February 18, 1952, the SS Pendleton was nearing its destination of Boston when a massive storm quite literally ripped the T2 tanker in half, killing all eight of the crew members in the sunken bow section while sending 33 survivors adrift in the still-afloat stern. As the men banded together to stay alive, a Coast Guard motorboat headed by Bernard Webber was sent out from Chatham, Massachusetts, for a rescue that’s considered to be one of the most exemplary and daring of all time.

With Disney’s penchant for telling true stories about gruff guys with hearts of gold (who miraculously never swear, despite being actual sailors), The Finest Hours takes the indisputable facts of the case—names, dates, how many people survived—and fills in the blanks as necessary. As far as Disney feel-good movies go, it’s mostly a success; leaning on a story full of characters who only seem to have one personality trait, the film wisely lets the action do the talking, never relenting on the visual thrill of the terrifying, unknowable, unconquerable behemoth that is the open sea. Humanity’s foolishness in attempting to tame it is matched only by our determination to do so.

The film stars Chris Pine, playing against type as the meek Webber. Webber is the anti-Captain Kirk, a stickler for regulation who is deeply committed to his sweetheart back home (Holliday Grainger). With a massive storm on the way, Webber is tasked with rescuing the Pendleton crew who, after losing their captain, is under the command of the decidedly un-captainly and antisocial Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck).

Perhaps this is giving the film too much credit, but director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Million Dollar Arm) makes a valiant effort to fit in undertones of people overcoming three obstacles at once: nature, their own reticence and the social structures that tell them what they can and can’t do. Sybert is disliked by the rest of the crew, yet is the only one with enough technical knowledge to navigate half of a boat successfully, and the only man levelheaded enough to think rationally when lives are on the line.

Webber is confident about what the rules dictate he ought to do, but not confident in himself. His girlfriend is the one who proposed to him, a fact that his colleagues use against him, but in which he sees no problem. Webber’s superior, Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana), acts like he’s in command but relents at the slightest resistance from his subordinates. Nobody in a position of official authority is the least bit effective, and the least commanding people are the ones who rise to the challenge.

But enough stretching. Truth be told, The Finest Hours essentially boils down to a melodramatic procedural of sea rescue protocol and Coast Guard regulations where three things happen: We meet our central characters, a ship breaks in half, a rescue boat sets out to save them. The effects look great, the CG ocean is terrifying, the performances of the leads and supporting actors are deeply invested, and it’ll make you feel good. It ain’t Das Boot, but it sure ain’t das bad.

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