The Finest Hours (2016)

Directed by Craig Gillespie

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The Finest Hours is an okay but conventional dramatization of the real life rescue of thirty-two workers aboard a sinking oil tanker.  It stars Chris Pine doing a possibly accurate but nevertheless distracting Boston accent and Ben Foster doing much the same.  In the middle is Casey Affleck playing a more captivating character if only because his heroism isn’t guaranteed, and the character he plays is not far from the defeated characters he’s most known for.

The story here is predictable, and though there is some charm to it all the movie never transcends the Hollywood dramatic formula.  That means there is a love story which does little beyond using the female love interest as a symbol of what the hero will lose should he fail, and which also means the hero won’t fail.  It also means there will be characters gravely calling attention to the disaster a year before which is meant to humble the main character and foreshadow what he will have to go through before the two hours are up.

Pine plays Bernie Webber, a member of the US Coast Guard stationed in Chatham, Massachusetts.  The movie devotes a significant amount of time to the night he meets Miriam Pentinen (Holliday Grainger) and to the night she proposes to him.  This seems odd because she is mostly adjacent to the plot, though her storyline does comment on the movie’s theme of pushing back against authority and learning when to say ‘no.’

Bernie and his small team will push out into a roaring ocean to try and reach the wreckage of the SS Pendleton, a daunting task which is made to seem suicidal considering the weather conditions.  Bernie does what he’s asked, even against his better judgment, because he’s an ardent follower of the rules, and his commanding officer (Eric Bana) ordered him to.

As this mission is going on, Miriam will barge into the commanding officer’s quarters and demand to know how he could send Bernie to certain death.  She doesn’t receive much of an answer, but her determination to get an answer shows her character.  She is stubborn and resourceful, demonstrating qualities which Bernie will learn to adopt to survive in the movie’s third act, though he does this purely coincidentally and not because of Miriam’s journey.

Bernie will make it to the wreckage where he finds three dozen survivors, way more than the fifteen to twenty his boat can carry.  Because he’s the hero, he will make sh*t work, and then there will be another layer of conflict when his compass is broken and the Chatham city power goes out, making it near impossible to navigate back to the mainland.

This is when Bernie goes against his commanding officer’s orders, and a decision by Miriam will help him get home.  Look it makes sense, and it’s neat in a Hollywood structure kind of way, and I get that his commanding officer sent him out to die, it seems, but were it not for that officer’s determination then all those thirty or so oil workers would be dead.  It’s not easy for that officer to send Bernie and company out into such stormy waters, but he apparently made the right call.

I understand the resentment Bernie might have, but he was called to duty, and he answered that call.  Because the movie knows that his success validated his superior’s orders, it has to give us a moment in which the officer gives Bernie another set of ill-advised orders just so Bernie can go against him and be right.  The movie wants Bernie to save all the men and to correctly defy his superior’s orders.

There is a ton of CGI in this movie, some moments better than others, and there are a few scenes in which the large waves crush Bernie’s small boat but don’t do the damage such a thing would seem to cause.  It’s a visual spectacle just for the sake of spectacle, filling in the gaps between character moments.

Everyone in this movie is fine, but the best parts have to do with the oil workers onboard the sinking ship as they make a plan to survive.  Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) is the ship’s engineer and the highest ranking survivor after the ship splits in two.  He knows the ship best, and he comes up with a way to stave off their watery deaths until help can arrive.  It’s not just that he must fight to survive but that he must work to control a group of men who strongly dislike him.

It’s this group dynamic which makes the story most gripping, and it calls back to other Casey Affleck characters like Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford as well as Manchester By the Sea.  Affleck seems to work best in these scenes, with the whole world weighing on his shoulders.  It works to his quiet brooding.

These scenes, to me, have a certain power because while we anticipate Chris Pine’s heroism, it wasn’t immediately clear where this other storyline would go, at least until it inevitably intersected with the Coast Guard.

Eventually they do cross, and pretty quickly the Affleck character takes a backseat to the central hero character.  Sybert’s heroism is downplayed when compared to Webber’s, and the movie erases any nuance by getting to the expected final image, where the man and woman are reunited.  The final beat reminds us that they are both successful characters because they knew when to bend the rules.

Up Next: Kid-Thing (2012), A Star is Born (2018), Kimuko, the Treasure Hunter (2014)

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