For me, watching The Finest Hours reinforced the necessity for watching movies before interviewing the talent involved in their production. Grant that this is very much an irregular practice for me, and that nobody on a set visit has seen the movie beforehand for obvious reasons. All the same, it was only inevitable that my experience watching The Finest Hours would be influenced by the time I spent touring the film’s set in November of 2014; you can’t enjoy a courtesy like that and see huge chunks of what goes into producing a movie without having bias installed in your brain.
I mean all of this preamble to say that you should probably take this review well-salted, though I am surprised at how much I genuinely enjoyed myself with this sucker. Maybe this is just what happens when a cast and crew set out to make a no-frills, no-nonsense picture rooted in fact. Maybe The Finest Hours is the natural result of earnest, classically styled studio filmmaking. It is a workmanlike movie that’s cleanly and smartly made, brimming with good performances, and occasionally thrilling despite its dedication to reality. (Not realism, mind you, but reality, though it is hard to gauge just how much the film’s action sequences exaggerate the struggle of navigating breaking waves in bad weather.) You might lose something by walking into the movie with knowledge of the SS Pendleton and SS Fort Mercer rescues back in 1952, but then again, if The Finest Hours was a worse movie, you would almost certainly lose more.
If you aren’t familiar with those rescues, well, then you probably haven’t been reading this site. Put in short, sixty four years ago, the greatest small boat rescue in the U.S. Coast Guard’s history took place off the coast of Chatham, Massachusetts, when a pair T2 tankers (the aforementioned Pendleton and Fort Mercer) bobbing around in New England waters in the middle of a truly gnarly nor’easter were split in half by the strength of the storm. Nearby Coast Guard responders went out in a motor lifeboat to take the survivors back to shore. Amazingly, they succeeded, and with minimal loss of life. The story of the Pendleton is so incredible and so intrinsically dramatic that it’s a wonder nobody has thought to adapt it for the screen already. So credit to Craig Gillespie and Disney’s producers for making The Finest Hours happen. (Also: Casey Sherman, who wrote the book the movie uses as a blueprint.)
Once you know the premise, the only missing pieces are the cast members. Chris Pine, Kyle Gallner, Ben Foster, and John Magaro each play the Coast Guard sailors responsible for saving the Pendleton‘s imperiled crew, while Casey Affleck, Graham McTavish, John Ortiz, Josh Stewart, and Beau Knapp comprise the “face” characters of said imperiled crew. In between them there is Holliday Grainger, who takes what is normally the most thankless role in films like this (the wife) and turns it into one of the film’s most memorable performances. If you know Grainger, you probably know her best as Lucrezia Borgias, Estella, or one of Lady Tremaine’s daffy daughters. It’s hard imaging a future where The Finest Hours vaults her into a new strata of stardom, but she’s legitimately wonderful here, and aided greatly by a script that refuses to relegate her to nervous hand-wringing even as it acknowledges her powerlessness to intervene while her husband, Boatswains Mate First Class Bernie Webber (Pine), risks his life on the Atlantic. Hers is a story about the experience of being married to the Coast Guard, so to speak, and of wanting to help even when circumstances dictate that it is impossible for you to do so.
The men fair well, too, of course – the movie is about them, after all, so they get the most to do, have the most to say, and as penance for their prime position in the film’s storytelling hierarchy, they get to spend a huge chunk of its duration bonding with one another and getting soaked. Frankly, the ocean feels better developed; Pine, Foster, Gallner, and Magaro vibe well as a unit, but the material doesn’t give them a whole lot of interaction. They spend most of their time clutching the boat in stances of fearful stoicism and shouting over the roar of the water. Affleck and his fellows aboard the Pendleton feel better served by virtue of having greater agency over their situation, and the quieter, larger setting gives each of them (Affleck especially) a lot of space to explore their characters. The Finest Hours is largely divided between these two axes – the Coast Guard boat and the Pendleton – and while it would be wrong to say that the actors aboard the lifeboat suffer in comparison to those on the tanker, there’s little point in denying how much thinner the former half of the film feels compared to the latter. (It is, however, more of a ride. The first meaningful action scene takes place about an hour in and is a seriously gripping piece of entertainment.)
But maybe there’s no reason to expect a ton of subtext here. The mission statement is thus: make a movie that highlights the bravery of Webber and his fellow Coast Guardsman, as well as the bravery of the Pendleton‘s crew, and recreate the Pendleton disaster in all its historic glory. No fuss, no muss. Well, hey, you can’t fault people for having clear goals and meeting them. The Finest Hours is exactly what it sets out to be; it’s a film in which what you see is what you get and nothing more. Maybe that approach won’t win The Finest Hours many accolades or much recognition – critics are already giving it quite the bum rap – but there’s something to be said for blockbusters that validate life instead of treating it as disposable.