‘I’ ON CULTURE
The Finest Hours, describing one of the great Coast Guard rescues, maybe its best, is set in 1952, and this is a very good 1950s movie. It has the feel of the time. Except for the computer-generated effects, it could have been done at that time, which improves the film. It could have been done as a kind of mockery: many in the media love to mock the ideas of that time. But it stays true to itself. It feels right; the characters belong.
Set in a small New England town by a Coast Guard base, the story focuses on a group of Coast Guard men forced to go out for a rescue. Almost all of the regular men on duty are out helping a crippled ship during a major storm. Director Craig Gillespie brings out all the confusion and daring of the old-timers. But suddenly, a second ship, the S.S. Pendleton, breaks in half and begins to sink. The commander of the station, Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana) has only a handful of young men available for help. He knows it’s dangerous, possibly suicidal. But as he, and a half-dozen other men, say: “The book says we have to go out. It doesn’t say we have to come back.”
So young Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) takes three other men on a small boat out to help the big ship that is sinking. His fiancée Miriam (Holliday Grainger) protests because of the danger, but he goes anyway and fights to survive long enough to land his men on the crippled ship, where engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) is leading the survivors. A lot of action happens on board the ship.
The male actors play their parts very low-key, which works well. There are few hysterics as people try to solve the problems faced with a sinking ship and a rescue boat too small to hold them. As each problem arises, the people involved all say they’re impossible to solve, and then they solve them.
The film is at its best when it’s on the sea. The special effects, while not as good as some of those in more costly films, work well enough to provide the atmosphere. The waves are appropriately wild and huge. The little boat pitches around (I almost got a bit seasick). The big boat was large, and its problems were quickly clear. As long as the film stuck to the events on the ocean, the film is fine.
The problem is the scenes on land. The relationship between Webber and his fiancée is overblown, and she is far too hysterical. Instead of ratcheting up the tension, it simply becomes an annoying sidepiece. Yes, she’s scared for her man, but she is also a drama queen, and that gets in the way by moving our attention from the real action.
The acting is good. Pine underplays a lot, perhaps as a way of balancing Grainger’s near-hysteria. Affleck is particularly effective as the chief engineer, a man of strong feelings and integrity and a lot of brains. Bana’s Southern accent is a bit overdone, but it provides a strong contrast to the New England accents of the rest of the cast. Affleck’s accent, which is real, did that part best.
For a time, it’s actually three stories: the soap opera on shore, the struggle of the Coast Guard men to get to the stricken ship through the huge waves and the battle to keep at least part of the ship afloat. The last two work well; the first one does not. And that is the one problem of this movie: The elements are great, but they do not work as a whole. The love story is actually nice.
Grainger is a fine young actress and, when she’s not freaking out about her man, she is good. Pine pairs well with her. But, unfortunately, right in the middle of the really critical times, she becomes a distraction.
I liked the movie. It was well-done and told an important story. The Coast Guard does great work; check out the fabulous stamp the government put out last year in its honor. They deserve all honors. And this is a great story, despite the soap-opera diversion that makes it only a good movie.