Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
We’ve seen many cinematic tales that deal with survival and rescue. I’m not saying we’ve become desensitized, as the visceral thrills still remain potent. It just takes something special to make a film in this genre stand out. Director Craig Gillespie’s THE FINEST HOURS, based on the true-life account chronicled in Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias’ novel The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue, may not be flawless, but it is a truly engaging, entertaining and engrossing tale of humanity and heroism. There’s a great amount of genuine suspense that keeps this ship afloat even when a few strong waves threaten to take it down. Overall, it’s wholesome, life-affirming and a terrific ringing testament to the courage these men displayed.
In February of 1952, a treacherous nor’easter struck the New England coast, splitting two T2 oil tankers in half within 40 miles of each other. Most of the rescue effort was dispatched to the the SS Mercer, which was able to fire off a distress signal. The SS Pendleton, however, had to rely on the ingenuity of the remaining seamen – led by Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) – to keep the rear of the ship afloat until rescuers could reach them. As the clock ticks away, four members of the Chatham Coast Guard aboard a tiny, tiny lifeboat – sweet-natured Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), acerbic Richard Livesey (Ben Foster), brave Andy Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner) and dutiful patriot Ervin Maske (John Magaro) – are tasked to save the imperiled seamen. A gripping, white-knuckle battle against Mother Nature’s wrath ensues.
Gillespie, along with writers Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, take a remarkably unconventional path, opening this testosterone-fueled film on a sweet love story between Bernie and telephone operator Miriam (Holliday Grainger), who’s this narrative’s pulsating heart, and whose fur coat is one of the film’s long-running gags. God bless the filmmakers for giving Grainger a more substantive “thankless girlfriend/ wife in waiting” role. She’s a spitfire heroine with gumption and soul – almost anachronistic to the times – and there ain’t nothing wrong with that. Leads Pine and Affleck bring pathos, gravitas and vulnerability to their characters. Pine’s like a newfangled version of classic Hollywood Gary Cooper-style heroism. He and Affleck provide the calm in the chaotic storm. Affleck brings out his character’s complexities in a fascinating, highly resonant yet reserved manner. He’s the reluctant hero, reticent to be the de-facto leader, taking charge regardless. He’s also the most fleshed out of the bunch.
Action sequences driven by special effects, especially in 3D, feel surprisingly immersive, making you clutch your armrests. Sailing terms are explained in a digestible, understandable way. In one spectacular sequence, the camera fluidly follows information travelling from the top of the wrecked tanker through the bowels of the ship to the engine room. While it’s not Iñárritu, Gillespie comes close. Sound design also proves important during the 36-500 lifeboat’s attempt to pass through the dangerous Chatham Bar – one of the films most electric scenes.
Despite its striking qualities, the hull springs a few leaks. For an incredible true story, and it indisputably is, this portrait feels only half-painted; it’s good, but feels a little condensed at times. While I rooted for their triumphs and felt connected to their tribulations, the supporting cast is dealt a disservice by being underdeveloped. Once Pine and his three men climb aboard their tiny rescue vessel, the script sets them adrift. Outside of stepping up when no one else was eager to, I couldn’t tell you Gallner and Magaro’s purpose. A few of the men aboard the Pendleton don’t fare much better in terms of development. Maybe it’s meant to signify that acts of valor speak louder than words. How it plays, though, is that their defining personalities become a little lost at sea. Threads about Webber’s past failings – the storyline with Nickerson (Matthew Maher) – don’t add up to anything but unnecessary padding. Plus, Carter Burwell’s score is obtrusive, rearing its head in places where quiet dramatic impact would have been preferred.
When all the small gripes begin to fade, what will remain is the memory of these men’s gutsy conviction and servitude.
THE FINEST HOURS opens on January 29.