Think back to your favorite movie about the military. Unless that flick is 2006’s The Guardian (and it’s probably not because I don’t think The Guardian is anyone’s favorite anything) I’ll bet it has nothing to do with the United States Coast Guard. The Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines – they all feature prominently in heroic tales of action and suspense, but the Coast Guard has had no such luck. Until now. Disney and director Craig Gillespie bring the public the movie they’ve been clamoring for in the form of The Finest Hours – and the good news for me is that it’s actually pretty well done.
It’s the winter of 1952 and timid Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), a somewhat disgraced crewman at a Coast Guard outpost in Chatham, Massachusetts, falls in love with a strong, outspoken local girl named Miriam (Holliday Grainger). Before their relationship can really take off though, a nor’easter hits the region and Bernie’s commander (Eric Bana) orders him out to rescue the remaining crew of a tanker (led by Casey Affleck’s Ray Sybert) which has broken in half off the coast. After failing to be effective in a similar situation the year before, Bernie takes a small crew (Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner, Ben Magaro) and resolves to do anything and everything possible to save those men, even if it kills him.
For the majority of its runtime The Finest Hours splits Bernie and Sybert into pretty disparate storylines. Bernie’s is a contemplative study of a man struggling to do what he believes is right, while Sybert and the crew on the S. S. Pendleton participate in a survival picture stressing the importance of human ingenuity. Both aspects thrive under the tenacity of their main characters, and these segments only work because of their lead actors. Casey Affleck has subtly revealed himself to be a capable presence in most of his film work of late – his turns in movies like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Gone Baby Gone have shown there’s more to him as an actor than the bickering brother role from Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies might have indicated. Slightly more surprising is though is Pine’s performance; since breaking out in Star Trek, Pine has excelled in loud, cocky roles, which is the opposite of what he does here. Bernie is quiet and thoughtful and despite his cinematic reputation and his handsome features, you believe Pine as the meek and modest seaman.
Both performances are very understated (to the extent that I could understand an argument declaring them sleepy, though I wouldn’t agree with it), which is true even of the supporting cast, particularly Grainger, Foster, and Magaro – the latter of whom is slowly making a name for himself as a solid supporting player in excellent pictures such as Carol and The Big Short. Even the smaller roles ably portrayed by lesser-known character actors evoke a proud New England stoicism. The only thing really holding these actors back are the accents that they’re saddled with; The Finest Hours is full of northeastern accents of all sorts – some that work and some that don’t. It’s a testament to the acting itself that most of the roles feel lived in and legitimate despite this hurdle, but unfortunately this can’t be said for Bana, whose accent is unplaceable and inconsistent. It is clear that Bana’s Daniel Cluff is not from Chatham (the real-life officer was actually from Virginia) but Bana sometimes slips into it anyway, perhaps as a result of being confused by all of the voice work going on around him. Luckily Gillespie and editor Tatiana S. Riegel keep him out of the majority of the film so he doesn’t become too much of a distraction.
Bana’s performance really is the picture’s biggest flaw. The special effects are a little shoddy at parts, but they are greatly aided by the fact that most of the movie is dark, and Carter Burwell’s score is a little hammering and on-the-nose at a few points (though it works really well as an isolated soundtrack). The only other aspect of the movie some viewers might have difficulty reckoning with is its faith-based morality. Affleck’s half of the movie places a ton of value on hard work and self-worth, but Pine’s really engages with the idea of belief – both in yourself but also in a design of some sort. Sybert spends a good chunk of the movie denying the concept of luck, but it ultimately provides for salvation. Those who fall more in line with science over religion may roll their eyes at the an almost literal deus ex machina, but the screenplay by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson doesn’t seem to be out to discredit either, as the rescue can’t be pulled off without both. In an era when cheaply-made and poorly-conceived movies about faith keep getting pumped out, it’s nice to see a picture that can acknowledge such concepts without shoving a high-horsed lesson down your throat.
It’s possible The Finest Hours looks good in comparison to all of the other crap I’ve seen in theaters so far this year, but I’m not going to think too hard about it. I view the movie as a rare diamond in this very rough January. If I ever encounter it again it may beg for reappraisal, but for now The Finest Hours receives a surprising (I’m surprised that I’m about to type this) four out of five confused Australians: