Movie review: Real-life maritime rescue story The Finest Hours is hokey and fun

January 29, 2016

Finest Hours

from Indy Week 

On February 18, 1952, a massive nor’easter crashed upon the New England coastline with colossal waves and gale-force winds. The storm was so powerful that not one buttwo massive oil tankers split in half off the coast of Cape Cod.

With four separate floating husks in the water—and four potential rescue situations—the local Coast Guard was stretched dangerously thin. The circumstances ultimately led four very brave men to pilot a ridiculously small boat into a ridiculously big storm.

That’s the set-up for Disney’s real-life seagoing drama, which delivers astounding visuals wrapped in unapologetic hokeyness. The Finest Hours isn’t just set in 1952, it also feels like it was made in 1952. It’s corny and square and actually quite fun.

Chris Pine headlines as Coast Guard greenhorn Bernie Webber, a man so passionate about following rules that he asks his commanding officer for permission to get married. Bernie’s fiancée is Miriam (Holliday Grainger), and the first twenty minutes of the movie are dedicated to establishing their romantic framing story. These are the kinds of scenes that fast-forward buttons were made for.

The real action begins when Bernie and three other Coast Guard rookies steer a very small lifeboat into the maw of the storm to investigate the fate of the oil tanker Pendleton. The massive sea swells threaten to swallow the little boat, and this is where the film’s digital effects artisans start delivering the goods.

Hours is one of the very rare films where 3-D works the way it’s supposed to. We’re put in the middle of that terrible storm, pitching and yawing and looking up to see mountainous waves crashing down. It’s such a pleasure when digital wizardry is properly deployed.

Meanwhile, on the half of the Pendleton that’s still floating, chief engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) leads a group of survivors who are desperately trying to patch up the ship until help arrives. Affleck gives a smart, understated performance. He’s the most interesting guy in the picture.

Director Craig Gillespie crosscuts between the two crews, with occasional glimpses back to shore, until the big rescue scene arrives. He never manages to create anything truly cinematic, which is a shame, because he’s got a hell of a story to work with. Instead, he relies on the film’s insistent musical score to generate emotional effects he can’t conjure otherwise. If you’re unsure what you’re supposed to be feeling in a given scene, don’t worry. The music will beat it into you.

Overall, The Finest Hours is a slight bit of moviemaking, but those immersive digital effects really do lend some weight. The money shots of rogue waves and listing ships trump similar scenes from the film’s most obvious predecessor, The Perfect Storm. It’s fun, family-friendly and utterly inoffensive—Disneyfied disaster porn, with all the sharp parts sanded down.

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