This historically-based rescue-at-sea film is set in 1952, and apart from the CGI it might have been made then, given the surfeit of clichés reflective of pictures from the Eisenhower era. “The Finest Hours” dramatizes the admittedly amazing feat of the crew of a small Coast Guard boat that managed to reach and save most of the men on half of an oil tanker that had been literally ripped in two by a storm and was sinking fast. But like Ron Howard’s recent pre-Moby Dick tale “In the Heart of the Sea,” the old-fashioned approach fails to set the pulse racing as it should.
That’s partially because while each of the two seafaring plot threads has exciting moments, neither proves as consistently invigorating as one might expect. On the one hand, there’s the effort of the Coast Guard men—stalwart expedition commander Boatswain Mate First Class Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), his hardened second-in-command Seaman Richard Livesey (Ben Foster), dedicated Engineerman Third Class Andy Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner) and eager outsider Seaman Ervin Maske (John Magaro)—to get past the sand bar in the harbor into the roiling waves and then find the vessel in distress although their compass has been lost in the process. On the other, there’s the effort of Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), the laconic chief engineer of the slowly sinking tanker Pendleton, to keep the remnant of the rudderless, radio-less ship afloat until help arrives—despite the fact that many of his fellow crewmen have little respect for him.
Director Craig Gillespie stages both of these narratives—separated almost as completely as the two halves of the Pendleton but then shuffled together—decently enough, but the dark grey palette of the nighttime setting (and of the boats themselves) lends a general visual murkiness to the proceedings, only worsened by a 3D format that makes the images of cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe even less distinct. The problem is further accentuated by the computerized waves, which turn the prolonged sequence of the Coast Guard vessel repeatedly trying to broach the bar into something that might have come out of a surfing movie: it appears that the boat is being swallowed up again and again, only to emerge pretty much unscathed on the other side.
More could have been made of this ocean action, frankly, if the characters were more compelling. But the only person to register strongly is Sybert, whom Affleck plays with a mixture of shy reticence and simmering intensity that grows more and more affecting as the film proceeds. By contrast Pine comes across as stiff. That’s true to the characterization of Webber as a rigidly controlled do-gooder haunted by a previous rescue expedition that apparently turned out badly (the details are only fleetingly referred to), but it doesn’t make the young boatswain any more engaging.
As for the other men on the two vessels, they’re largely portrayed in stock terms. Among those on the Pendleton, there’s a frightened neophyte, a burly strongman, a genial cook (who keeps singing Frank Loesser’s “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat”), a rude naysayer who insists on using the lifeboats, though doing so would spell immediate doom…and so on. And Webber’s crew is equally stereotypical, with Gallner and Magaro both regular guys and Foster, an actor who can ordinarily be expected to bring something unusual to even the blandest role, disappointingly one-note as gruff Livesey. Things come alive during the actual rescue sequence, but that’s a long time in coming.
Still, with all their flaws the scenes at sea are considerably better than those on land, which focus on telephone reporter Miriam (Holliday Grainger). The first part of the picture focuses on her romance with Bernie—their cute meeting on a blind date, their going out for an excursion on a fishing boat, the proposal of marriage that comes from her rather than him, and the like. All of this has the feel of a Hallmark Hall of Fame special. And things don’t improve when she bursts into the Coast Guard station to confront the unit commander, Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Cuff (Eric Bana, totally wasted) about the fate of her husband-to-be, and then gets stuck in a snow drift from which she’s extricated by a local family that’s suffered a loss of its own. This material may be designed to enhance the emotional pull of the danger Webber faces on his mission, but if so it fails miserably, and while Grainger looks great in her period outfits (Louise Frogley’s costumes are excellent overall, as is the fifties ambience captured in Michael Corenblith’s production design and William Ladd Skinner’s art direction), she never manages to become much more than a gal who’s stepped out of a scene in a glossy fifties flick or a department store advertisement from the era.
There’s nothing radically bad about “The Finest Hours,” but like its nondescript title, it’s underwhelming despite the size of those billowing CGI waves. And though Pine plays the role of the Disney hero, it’s really Affleck’s Sybert who quietly becomes the most remarkable fellow on view—as much, or more, the rescuer as the Coast Guard guy.