After a Strong Start, “The Finest Hours” Drowns in Melodrama

Finest Hours

The Finest Hours (Craig Gillespie, 2016)

Based on the daring 1952 rescue of the oil tanker Pendleton by a Massachusetts-based Coast-Guard crew – or, rather, based on the book about that rescue – The Finest Hours does its best to immerse the audience in the derring-do of its heroes – and succeeds for a while – before merely submerging us in the overflow of its melodramatic waters. Directed by Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm) and starring Chris Pine (Star Trek: Into Darkness), Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone) and Holliday Grainger (Cinderella), among others, the film is not without its qualities, and is, in fact, quite gripping in its first half. Unfortunately, like some of the ships in its story, it loses its way in an attempt to take the already harrowing events and prolong the agony of their unfolding for the sake of (failed) tension. Still, while it works, it works quite well.

When we first meet Bernie Webber (Pine), it is just before a date with Miriam (Grainger), a young woman with whom he has frequently spoken (on the phone), but never met. We are told that he is extremely handsome (and he is Chris Pine, after all), but his manner is not that of a ladies’ man; quite the contrary. He’s all shyness to her brash confidence. Later, she is even the one who proposes. Interesting. Will this film – ostensibly about a true-life drama – offer a revisionist take on 1950s sexual politics? Sadly, that is not to be, as Miriam eventually finds her way – quite literally – to the kitchen, like a good little girl, and all is right with the world (I’m kidding, but she is in the kitchen).

But enough about that part of the story. You came here for adventure! And so we get it. It’s February, and a nasty winter storm breaks apart a large oil tanker. Make that two oil tankers, one of which is unable to signal its position. That would be the Pendleton. Its bow section sinks rapidly, but its stern still has power, and ship’s engineer Ray Sybert (Affleck, giving the best performance in the film) thinks he can keep them afloat long enough for the Coast Guard to arrive (if they’re even coming). Back on shore, Webber is told to head out to sea to save the Pendleton after all the other ships go in pursuit of the other tanker. It’s a suicide mission, but he agrees to go, since, as we’ve learned by this point, he always does his duty. And so, with a crew of three other unlucky sailors, off he goes, in a 36-foot boat, into the waves and the wind.

So far, so good; well, mostly, as we have to wonder what Eric Bana (Hulk) is doing here as Webber’s commanding officer, since he almost singlehandedly ruins the film. As we cut between Webber and his mates and the seemingly doomed crew of the Pendleton, the truth is that it is a thrilling ride. But then, at some point, Gillespie begins to mishandle the story. I think the score is a major part of the problem – although I normally love the composer, Carter Burwell (who is Oscar-nominated this year, for Carol) – as we do not need its swelling chords; the swelling waves are enough. But it’s not just the music; we also must deal with what begins to feel like endless and manipulative dramatic pauses in the action on both vessels, as well in what happens on land (remember Miriam?). And so it goes. It’s not a total wash, but it never lives up to the promise of its initial set-up.

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