The bravery men and women exhibit in their finest moments has always been a benchmark in the creation of stories and movies. There’s a lot of inspiration and emotion that comes along with showcasing someone’s defining moment of courage, as they rise above impossible challenges to do what’s right when no one else is willing to accept what faces them. Within the meat of these narratives, several factors must be adhered to in order to keep the events and those who went through the harrowing acts from derailing into sappy melodrama. One of those factors is knowing who the main character is, and why their story — their journey — is important and inspirational. How did they find the courage to rise up and take the reigns despite friction from others who may have differing ideas? And more importantly, why should we care? If the subject isn’t well-drawn, or doesn’t seem real enough, then the story itself, and the grit of the events will falter. That’s what happens in The Finest Hours, a film that splits our attention among two separate paths of heroism, but can’t decide which is more important.
One one side, we have Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), a painfully by-the-books (or by-the-regulations) member of the coast guard whose somewhat shy, reserved personality doesn’t match his rugged good looks. Never ask this good-ole-boy to go against regulation, or do anything without first having a structured, well-meaning plan. It may only be formality, but when his girlfriend, Miriam (Holliday Granger), asks him to marry him, his first thought is the painful task of having to ask his commanding officer for permission. Basically, he’s as straight-arrow as they come. So when he’s the only one left to rescue the crew of an oil tanker that’s been split in half due to the rough sea waters, Bernie must ignore his instincts (as well as a past incident he isn’t quite ready to forgive himself for) and do what he knows is right. That’s all well and good, as it fits the mold of this type of film perfectly. However, there’s one other man aside from Bernie who rises to the challenge of keeping his men safe — a man I felt much more connected to throughout the movie.
That man is Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), a high-ranking member of the engine crew of the oil tanker, Pendleton. He’s smart, capable and cool under pressure. During one of the worst storms to hit the New England area in the 50s, it falls on his shoulders to find a way to keep his men alive until they can be rescued. No, let me rephrase that. He appoints himself captain when everyone else can’t see the bigger picture past their own fears, having to resort to things like cutting loose the escape boats to keep the men from perishing when the waters tear said boat to pieces. It’s an act that could have ostracized him beyond repair, but one that does the exact opposite, proving he’s able to keep his wits about him while doing what he knows will keep everyone alive.
The Finest Hours is based on a true story, and though it was meant to be about Bernie, I found myself caring more for the crew of the Pendleton then I did the coast guard who risked their lives to save them. Being on the the rig, watching those men work together to find a way to steer the boat, to relay information and to keep the lights on, it all worked as a harrowing example of what can be accomplished when men work together for a single goal despite their differences. The more I spent with this group, which also includes fine performances by Michael Raymond James, Graham McTavish and Josh Stewart, among others, the more I hated having to leave them. In contrast, the story of Bernie and his men is as bland as rice cakes.
From the first frame, the film begins by building the innocuous relationship between Bernie and Miriam, while at the same time setting up the aforementioned backstory of Bernie’s failed attempt to rescue some fisherman during a storm, a story I believe would have been more effective had we actually seen the failure. Not only would it have visualized what they keep talking about, it would have demonstrated the dangers of what Bernie and his team were about to get themselves into when tasked with rescuing the oil tanker crew. It would also have given us a reason to care for why Bernie must go against what he knows is a bad idea and fight his way through to the end, regardless of whether it gets him killed. In addition, the three men who volunteer to go with Bernie seem wholly unimportant to the overall narrative. Their stories have no bite, nor do the actors’s performances. If it wasn’t for the special effects team, and for the interesting intensity of that first hurdle to get past the shore and out to sea (where we get to see Bernie maneuver the small rescue boat along the waves as if he were surfing them), their whole story would have put me to sleep.
I’m sure the essence of the film was meant to invoke the theory that love conquers all, that when you have a deep desire to return to someone you love, you’re more likely to fight harder to stay alive, a theory that plays a little into Ray’s story as well, but takes an opposite turn by having Ray fight for something other than love — something that isn’t explored as much as it could have, but holds far more weight than Bernie’s routine love story. But that whole idea doesn’t work as well as the filmmakers might have hoped simply because the characters that try to embody that notion are so generally dull and simple. There’s nothing to sink our teeth into, making for an incredibly uneven story that more than likely would have been so much grittier and intense had they stayed focused on the crew of the Pendleton and really gave us something to care about.
My Grade: B+
Next week, new movies include Hail Caesar! and Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.