The moment I realized that I wanted to be captivated by something other than Chris Pine’s alluring blue eyes, I knew something was terribly wrong. This is not to say that the true story behind “The Finest Hours” isn’t compelling, but more that it is sadly submerged.
“The Finest Hours” depicts four U.S. Coast Guard members braving a treacherous storm to save 32 men stranded off the Massachusetts coast on The SS Pendleton, an oil tanker split in half by the raging waves. The painfully slow exposition establishes the romance between Coast Guard captain Bernie Webber (Chris Pine, “Supermansion”) and Miriam (Holliday Grainger, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”). Once the USCG crew finally gets on the water, the pace speeds up nicely, bouncing between scenes featuring the Pendleton’s engineer, Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck, “Interstellar”) and Webber aboard the CG-36500 rescue boat. Both have their foibles: Webber too strictly adheres to the rules, and Sybert’s got this intense fear of being authoritative. Needless to say, no one actually expects either to succeed except Sybert’s father and Miriam, but that’s what makes the happy ending all the more satisfying.
Visually, it’s a decently stunning maritime film. The camera movements are sleek but still give the effect of a ship violently tumbling in the waves. All too soon, these once impressive shots and computer graphics become nettlesome. There’s an extremely clever shot where the camera acts as a messenger, following a command as it’s passed along from the ship’s top to bottom. Just a few scenes later, the motion is repeated. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe also relies too heavily on placing the camera in the windshield and front facing window of the CG-36500 in an attempt to make viewers feel like they’re riding along with the characters.
Pine and Affleck both give commendable performances. Their subtlety adds a sense of realism; they recognize that the men did it for the greater good because it was their duty, not because they foresaw their efforts displayed on the big screen. Moments focused on these two strictly executing their missions are what keep the film afloat, as they temporarily provide the true story (with a lifejacket, of sorts). Unfortunately, just as the desired story begins to surface, it's deluged with murky subplots.
Most annoying is the romantic one. If its purpose is to help create pathos for Webber, it was redundant — Pine’s natural charisma and ’50s drawl already accomplish that. Furthermore, the episodes of Miriam disrespectfully talking to Webber’s superiors and inappropriately acting like she’s the only person who will suffer if the CG-36500 doesn’t return bog down the film, only serving to increase our yearning for the historic rescue sequence. Her piddling struggles, like her car gently sliding into a snow bank and losing her coat for a few minutes, seem utterly inappropriate.
Then there’s the abundance of archetypes, starting with the flawed hero. I don’t know if the real Bernie Webber actually had a tragic rescue mission before Pendleton, but it’s distracting in the film, especially when it’s frequently addressed yet skimpily developed. Both crews are composed of tropes: the Pendleton consists of the cheery, singing chef, the scared youngster, the rough old man and the pugnacious man who revels in making life difficult for everyone else. Webber’s team doesn’t appear much better: there’s the inexperienced ship maintenance man, the man who holds a grudge against Webber for his previous mission and the amiable team player.
This profusion of tropes coupled with the overbearing romance sink the film into a sea of predictability. Of course the fearful deckhand must take a valiant leap of faith, and something unfortunate happens to the jolly old chef. All the romantic buildup caused me to anticipate Miriam acting as the light (both literally and figuratively) that guides Webber home far earlier than I wanted to.
As this aforementioned ending approached, everyone in the audience started gathering their belongings, and one gentleman had already meandered into the aisle. Then, side-by-side photos of the cast and those they portrayed slowly graced the screen. Written text accompanied the images, succinctly explaining the characters' lives after the historic event. All the hustle and bustle in the theater suddenly subsided and the man returned to his seat, intrigued. When the lights flickered on, everyone remained seated, eloquently demonstrating the fascination with real people and true stories, not the superficial recreation.