The first new movie I’ve seen in the new year, The Finest Hours, seeds its sea-based tale of heroics by the Coast Guard during a 1950s rescue operation with many—too many—interesting themes. The somewhat disjointed Disney movie, made with several writers and the director of the excellent Lars and the Real Girl, Craig Gillespie, is pieced together for an exciting, involving and challenging fact-based finish. The Finest Hours (screened in 3D) opens this Friday.
Chris Pine (Into the Woods, Star Trek) stars as an everyman in the United States Coast Guard near Cape Cod in the early 1950s. This was long before the government made the Coast Guard a unit of the Department of Homeland Security, as it is now. The Coast Guardsman back then was seen chiefly as “always ready” to conduct life-saving rescue. Pine’s character, Bernie, is sweet on a modern woman (Holliday Grainger, Cinderella). But his work comes first and he goes by the rules, and, more centrally, the code of honor which governs the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Finest Hours centers upon the young couple until the storm comes. Anyone who’s seen the advertising or the poster knows that the oil tanker Pendleton breaks in half during the massive storm at sea. Bernie is sent out to rescue them. Meanwhile, men on the tanker are led by Casey Affleck’s character to buy time to save themselves. That anyone could survive in this weather is a dubious idea and Gillespie does a good job of instilling suspense that all is neither lost nor easily found. The Finest Hours makes the audience wait to find out what happens.
It also caters to the audience across the spectrum. Psalms, rosary beads, prayers and talk of luck counter the leading men going by reason, trusting their own judgment, skills and abilities. Add to this engineering quality, which is reminiscent of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, that the Massachusetts town must unite through its wives, fishermen and seafarers and come to terms with past losses at sea and The Finest Hours indulges its action with a good buildup of character-based tension and interlocking subplots, including a welcome contrast between family men and Affleck’s single man. In a rare depiction of the hero asserting himself for his own sake, the unmarried, childless leader proclaims his value rather than sacrifice himself at the altar of the traditional, the familial and the God-fearing.
The Finest Hours incorporates several such promising plot points—another theme is that life’s problems come in waves, keep coming and must be met with a steady sense of purpose—and, though it doesn’t fully cash in and bring them together as it should, it also doesn’t let everything come apart. Credit goes to Pine’s understated performance, even if he looks too polished after being plunged under frigid waters several times. The Finest Hours is not as taut and moving as Disney’s superior Coast Guard picture, 2006’s The Guardian, but it is thrilling, surprising and, despite some head-scratching or unnecessary scenes and characters, rightly reverent about those fearless heroes of thought and action who rescue people in trouble at sea.