‘The Finest Hours’ Review | In the Heart of the Seamen

The wind whipping through your clothing, the freezing water punishing your body, your precious boat breaking against the tumultuous waves. Sometimes Craig Gillespie’s film The Finest Hours, about a real-life disaster that befell two oil tankers in 1952, is absolutely spectacular. The deadly situations and the morbid hugeness of the water, which doesn’t care whether you live or die, is vividly realized and downright frightening.

Unfortunately, these moments are flanked on all sides by a maudlin, congratulatory drama. The crew of the SS Pendleton and the Coast Guardsmen that rescued most of its crew after a blizzard tore off half of the ship deserve to be commended since, as The Finest Hours illustrates, their ingenuity and bravery was nothing short of astounding. But The Finest Hours has illustrated their finer qualities too vividly: they are heroes, this movie tells us, and not much else.

We meet Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) just before a blind date with an adorable young woman named Miriam (Holliday Grainger). They are cute together, and shockingly boring, with nothing of interest to say to each other. After a while, and after the most tedious of conflicts, they are engaged the day before the SS Pendleton disaster. Two oil tankers are caught in the storm, but the Coast Guard didn’t pick up on the second distress signal early enough, and they have already dispatched most of their resources to only one of the boats. 

Walt Disney Studios

Walt Disney Studios

So it falls to Bernie, who is noble but actually very dim (at least, that’s how Chris Pine plays him), and his crew of heroic archetypes to save the day. They are: Idealistic Rookie, Guy Who Doesn’t Like Bernie But Will Learn a Valuable Lesson, and someone who makes so little of an impression I have merely dubbed him Guy #4. Off they go to rescue the crew of the SS Pendleton, where more interesting things have already been happening.

The crew of the SS Pendleton are constantly fighting for their lives, and fighting each other. The sight of an oil tanker split in half is shocking and they react accordingly. Casey Affleck dominates this film and the rest of his fellow crewmen as an engineer who has always been bad at socializing, but who is now the only one with the expertise necessary to keep everyone alive. His solutions to impossible problems are exciting and inspiring. In this part of The Finest Hours, Craig Gillespie’s film is perfectly fine.

Walt Disney Studios

Walt Disney Studios

But The Finest Hours cuts between this genuine drama at sea and all the banal niceties on land too often. In Cape Cod, oppressively good people live out oppressively boring lives, waiting (along with the audience) for the moment when their stories finally seem relevant to the matter at hand. It takes forever for Bernie to finally set sail, and once he does The Finest Hours still cuts back to land repeatedly, just to show that Miriam has moxie and to justify her presence in the film. By the time she actually contributes to the rescue effort, in a scene that makes no sense whatsoever (everyone in town has the same idea, but then they forget all about it, and she gets the credit for flipping a switch), the damage has been done.

A disaster so full of amazing incident shouldn’t need to be padded out, and the heroes involved shouldn’t need Capraesque schmaltz drizzled all over their story. Whenever Craig Gillespie lets The Finest Hours focus on the punishing weather and the endangered crew, his movie is a thrilling adventure. Whenever he lets his characters talk about anything that doesn’t involve the disaster, it’s disastrous. And yet all that sentimentality doesn’t quite capsize The Finest Hours; this film is barely seaworthy, but it gets us where we’re going.

Top Photo: Walt Disney Studios

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.