Props to the cast of “The Finest Hours,” most of whom spend about three-quarters of their onscreen time soaking wet.
If only “The Finest Hours” had a screenplay worthy of the heroics depicted here, and a director who could have resisted wave after wave of schmaltz and melodrama.
Though based on true events, “The Finest Hours” plays like a hokey, cornball 1950s-era drama filled with stock characters and weakened by a sappy ending so over the top it actually dilutes the impact of what many call the greatest small-boat rescue mission in Coast Guard history.
At first, the tone of the film dovetails nicely with the era depicted. It’s 1951, and in a sweet, soft-focus prologue, we meet Chris Pine’s Bernie Webber, a movie-star handsome but almost painfully shy petty officer stationed at the U.S. Coast Guard station in Chatham, Massachusetts, who strikes up a romance with the beautiful and plucky Miriam (Holliday Grainger).
Some of the crusty old fishermen who keep their heavy slickers on even when they’re downing pints at the local pub, and many of Bernie’s fellow sailors, treat Bernie like a pariah. You see, there was a tragedy at sea the year before, and though Bernie and his crew tried to overcome the rough seas on a rescue mission, they failed – and some felt Bernie should have tried a lot harder.
Cut to the night of Feb. 18, 1952, when a nor’easter of monstrous proportions struck the waters off the coast of Massachusetts, tearing not one but two oil tankers in half. Thinking there was only one tanker in peril, the Coast Guard sent most of its resources to the SS Fort Mercer.
By the time the Coast Guard realized the Pendleton had also been ripped in two, it was left to Bernie and three crew members – Coast Guarders Andy Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner) and Richard Livesey (Ben Foster) and Navy man Ervin Maske (John Magaro) – to man a small Coast Guard motorboat on a seemingly impossible mission to locate the Pendleton and rescue all hands on deck.
For the bulk of the journey, “The Finest Hours” follows three paths: Bernie and his crew facing ferocious waves, the loss of their compass and a mission that feels increasingly suicidal with the passing minutes; Pendleton engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) devising ingenious methods to keep what’s left of the ship afloat while attempting to diffuse internal tensions among the crew; and Miriam’s plight back home, as she awaits word of Bernie’s fate.
Meanwhile, the landlocked scenes are the cheesiest of all. When Miriam storms into the Coast Guard headquarters and demands Chief Warrant Officer Cluff (Eric Bana, using an embarrassing Southern accent), who’s not from these parts, bring her fiance home, it’s just ridiculous. Later, when the townsfolk gather to monitor the radio and bring in potluck dinners, even overheard snippets of conversation are so heavy-handed they’re almost chuckle-inducing.
“The Finest Hours” feels stitched together. None of the three main plot lines is particularly powerful or moving. We’re never invested in these characters the way we were with, say, the leads in “The Perfect Storm.” The heroism of that small-boat crew from 1952 deserves a special film. This is not it.