When we think of movie adventures at sea, a few obvious favorites come to mind: The Perfect Storm, Das Boot, Titanic, All Is Lost, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, and The Endurance. Craig Gillespie’s The Finest Hours, a dramatized retelling of a true-story rescue operation in the frigid North Atlantic, may have aspirations to join that club but falls a bit short in several key departments. The best we can say about it is that it seems to know what a first-class maritime actioner should look like and strives to get it right, in its way, before it sinks.
During a horrendous snowy Nor’easter in the winter of 1952, the oil tanker Pendleton breaks in two in heavy seas off the coast of Cape Cod. The bow goes down with the captain and some crewmen aboard, but the stern section continues to operate while slowly filling with water, and it’s up to Chief Engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) to take command of the survivors. After a fierce debate with some of the crew, Sybert elects to run the ship aground on a shoal and await rescue while the storm rages.
Meanwhile, onshore at the Chatham Lifeboat Station, after learning of the shipwreck, Coast Guard Boatswain’s Mate Ernie Webber (Chris Pine) volunteers to take a 36-foot wooden motorized lifeboat with three other sailors out into the storm to rescue the men of the Pendleton (another tanker, the Mercer, also breaks up at the same time, but the movie chooses to follow only one thread). To do this they have to cross the treacherous Chatham Bar in sixty-foot seas, then locate the stricken tanker by sight after their radio fails.
Affleck’s Sybert is characterized as an outcast aboard his ship, neither well-liked nor respected. Likewise, Pine’s Webber is considered a lightweight, a shy, tongue-tied junior crewman with little experience. So both the main protagonists are underrated individuals with something to prove, against enormous odds. Nothing wrong with that. Virtually all of the action at sea is computer-generated, with mixed results. Compared to the oceanic fury in the above-named all-time films, the storm sequences in The Finest Hours have a faked, animated look to them. We find ourselves suspending our disbelief for so long, it starts to capsize at the same rate as the wounded tanker. Maybe this movie would have been more effective as a full-fledged animation, à la Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo, yet another far superior tale of the sea.
Then there’s the love story subplot between Webber and his strong-willed wife, Miriam (kewpie-doll-faced Holliday Grainger), who’s visibly worried about her husband risking his life. Throughout the film, just as the action reaches its peak, we cut away to scenes of Miriam back on land, arguing with Webber’s commander (Eric Bana), getting her car stuck in a snowdrift, and so on. Fitfully convincing action figure Pine (Into the Woods, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Star Trek) needs all the help he can get while being heroic — the numerous cutaways do nothing but distract from the business at hand.
Director Gillespie, who made the entertaining cross-cultural baseball comedy Million Dollar Arm, comes in for his share of the blame, as does the tag team of writers adapting Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias’ book. Despite a few well-thought-out scenes on the turbulent ocean — the rope ladder rescue of 32 Pendleton crewmen onto the tiny dory while the seas heave is particularly good — the lasting impression is of a film that Disney saw wasn’t holding together, so they decided to send it to Davy Jones’ Locker. Or as we call it, the last week of January.