The Finest Hours
If you’re looking for manly-men doing manly, heroic things in the theater this winter, and if Bay’s Benghazi bomb is a little too right-wing ooh-rah for your tastes, then maybe you’ll like The Finest Hours. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a coastal-Massachusetts-based adventure on the high seas featuring some guy named Chris doing a really bad imitation of a coastal Massachusetts accent, but Not-Moby-Dick had a little too much whale-head for you, again, maybe you’ll like The Finest Hours.
If I seem less than enthusiastic about the movie, well, it just doesn’t give me a whole lot to get all enthusiastic about. It’s pitched right down the middle at a classic dad-audience, to the kind of later-middle-aged guys who probably have Michael Tougias and Casey Sherman’s nonfiction account of the Pendleton rescue filed on their bookshelf next to a host of other nonfiction adventures. It’s a story of Real Men, endowed by their Creator with a near-magical combination of bravery, machine sense, and dashing good looks.
So, the story: in mid-February, 1952, the oil tanker SS Pendleton broke apart in a gale south of Cape Cod, at about the same time that the Coast Guard turned out to assist another tanker, the SS Fort Mercer, that had broken apart in the same storm. The motor life boat CG 36500, out of Chatham, managed to locate the Pendleton and save 32 survivors from the stern section before it sank.
Most of the movie stays with Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), the inexperienced coxswain of the 36500. Most of his character comes by telegraphing plot points. He’s unsure of himself, even when it comes to his relationship with Miriam Penttinen (Holliday Grainger), despite being reminded that he looks like, well, Chris Pine. Partly his nerves come from a failed attempt to get over a nasty sandbar to rescue a sinking ship a year or so before, so we know what he’s going to have to manage eventually. He’s also a stickler for regulations, even refusing to propose to Miriam without getting his commanding officer (Eric Bana) to approve it first, so we know he’s eventually going to buck them.
That’s more than we really get for the rest of his crew (Kyle Gallner, Ben Foster, and John Magaro), who mostly fill out the boat as a ragtag bunch you’d never expect to pull off the “Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue”.
Partly that’s because we also spend a huge chunk of time with the men on the Pendleton. With the bow already sunk, the engineer, Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), decides to jury-rig enough of a mechanism to steer the ship onto a shoal and slow their descent. But some of the men want to rush for the lifeboats, and there’s some sort of sense that they don’t trust Sybert for reasons that are never all that well fleshed out.
But it doesn’t really matter that much. Despite the storm’s effects on visibility, you can see pretty much everything coming for miles. There are some nicely-rendered shots of the little Coast Guard ship cutting through the giant waves to get over the bar, but the score does a lot of heavy lifting in making the other scenes feel dramatic and important. I get the magnitude of what these guys accomplished, but it feels strangely small and routine even on the big screen, with no real sense of danger to it.
Maybe the depiction is just not up to the task of what it’s trying to depict. And as an adventure yarn, it’s a real stretch to call this the finest of anything. But I guess it’s fine enough.
Worth It: not really.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.