The Finest Hours is a torrential movie without a beginning or end. It’s all middle. One big giant computer-generated middle, with storms and snow and some scenes aboard half an oil tanker and a small Coast Guard skiff. Sometimes we see recognisable faces, like those of Chris Pine and Casey Affleck, but most of this movie is spent locked onto a perpetual barrage of howling winds and crashing waves. It’s a great technical achievement. Perhaps too great; it lacks a human story.
This is a movie based on incredible true events, where a small-time boat piloted by big-hearted heroes braved the nasty New England weather in 1952 to rescue stranded sailors on a sinking ship. That’s a story worthy of a big-budget Hollywood production, but what the writers, Eric Johnson, Scott Silver, and Paul Tamasy, have failed to grasp is that a story requires characters, and characters require more than just things for them to do. We don’t want them to be defined by their actions. They’re not cartoons. We need to be able to connect with them on a deeper level, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. All the people in The Finest Hours are heroes, but by the end they seem more like towels hung out to dry by the plot, forgotten by history. There is no gravitas to their magnificent situation.
Maybe the filmmakers are going for modesty? — you argue. Maybe you are right. Surely the ending thinks so. It’s quiet and respectable. No big celebrations for the deliverance that just happened. But nothing leading up to this muted denouement indicates modesty. The first few scenes are hurried along to make way for the grand unveiling of the storm. As a result, key characters like Bernie Webber (Pine) and his girlfriend Miriam (cherub-faced Holliday Grainger) are robbed of personalities. All the movie wishes us to know about them is that they plan to get married, and Miriam can’t stand another minute of Bernie out there in the dark abyss because she may lose her future husband. The movie makes it unclear if she worries for the man or despairs of never getting to wear a wedding gown.
Meanwhile, on the foundering SS Pendleton, Casey Affleck leads a worrisome band of sailors through endless hull breaches and malfunctioning generator pumps. That’s the extent of his (and the crew’s) capabilities.
I have a thought. The Pendleton broke in half, this we know, but how did its stern stay afloat for what looks like 24 hours? Would water not have gushed through the gaping hole where half a ship used to be, flooding its lungs and dragging it down to the depths? The Titanic suffered a hairline fracture and sank in 120 minutes. The Pendleton had time to be steered toward a shoal. Something about the physics doesn’t add up here.
Anyway, that’s about all this picture has to offer. If you enjoy massive vessels sinking beneath the surface of hope, you’re likely to have loved The Poseidon Adventure (1972), which means you also loved The Perfect Storm (2000), The Guardian (2006), and probably Superman Returns (2006). You will also love The Finest Hours. It delivers its fair share of nautical thrills, but as Boatswain Webber so eloquently jests: All that’s under the water is more water.