Film Review: The Finest Hours

by Carrie Kahn on January 29, 2016

The dullest hours are spent with this rote seafaring rescue tale

Is Chris Pine screaming because of the CGI wave he’s encountering?  Or because he’s in this dismal movie? We’ll never know for sure.

T.S. Eliot famously wrote that “April is the cruelest month,” but, for the movie-going public, January is the harshest. The embarrassment of riches that is the late fall quality Oscar contender rush is now just a faint memory, and theaters are filled instead with middling fare that studios don’t know what to do with. Case in point is director Craig Gillespie’s The Finest Hours, which had two previously scheduled release dates before finally opening nationally today – never a good sign. A dull, paint-by-numbers mess, the picture’s suitability as a January wasteland offering makes perfect sense, but the fact that it boasts a wealth of talent both in front of and behind the camera is both puzzling and disappointing.

Based on the 2010 non-fiction book of the same name, The Finest Hours dramatizes the heroic 1952 Coast Guard rescue of nearly the entire crew of the oil tanker Pendleton during a voracious nor’easter off the Massachusetts coast, long considered the greatest small boat rescue in Coast Guard history. The tanker breaks in half and is predicted to sink completely in four to five hours; a crew of four men in a small motor life boat, its compass destroyed by the storm no less, succeeds in finding and safely returning the stranded men in brutal, virtually zero visibility conditions. Such a rescue is indeed inspiring and remarkable, and everyone involved with it deserves a far better retelling than this insipid, unimaginative, Hallmark-esque picture. In fact, the story would probably be more artfully served by a documentary, rather than this strained, superficial, and embarrassing dramatization.

The film is produced by Disney, so I suppose some sanitization is expected, but what Gillespie gives us is so squeaky clean and saccharine-fueled that the film plays more like a Nicholas Sparks novel meets The Perfect Storm, instead of an edge-of-your seat seafaring adventure. A romance between our hero, Bernie Webber (Chris Pine, sadly lacking his Captain Kirk bravado), and the utterly unlikable and abrasive Miriam (Holliday Grainger, unsuccessfully channeling Kate Winslet) feels forced and tacked on simply for the sake of having a character back on land fret over Webber’s safety. Their romance, which develops in all of two minutes at the beginning of the film, is never believable, and utterly extraneous to the more interesting rescue story.

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The ship sinks, and so does the picture.

Aside from Pine, we get the usually fine Casey Affleck, phoning it in as the chief engineer on the wrecked Pendleton, emoting more than acting. Eric Bana, too, seems stiff and one-note as Webber’s commanding officer. I spent most of the movie wondering why the members of this passionless trio took this gig; that their hearts aren’t in it is painfully obvious in every frame. Either they owed Disney a favor, or they’re all past due on their electric bills.

The writing and directing team also has impressive credentials, so their involvement here is equally perplexing. Director Gillespie helmed 2007’s quirky and charming Lars and the Real Girl, and, back in 2010, screenwriters Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson were the writing team responsible for The Fighter’s excellent Oscar nominated screenplay. Here, they are reduced to writing such bon mots as “Not on my watch!” and “We all live or we all die!”, both of which Pine utters with all the earnest intensity of an 10th grade drama student.

Casey Affleck perfects the intense stare.

Casey Affleck perfects the intense stare.

And even the excitement of the rescue itself is tempered by the fact that Gillespie seems to use the same choppy ocean/huge wave/tossed boat shot in what feels like at least ten different scenes. There is no chance to be breathlessly swept up by heart-pounding thrills when the same CGI image is replayed over and over; having your audience think “get on with it already” probably isn’t your goal as a director, but that’s what happens to Gillespie here.

Gillespie also uses the lazy director’s trick of substituting a soaring soundtrack for real acting and emotion; indeed, between that technique and his choice of showcasing his actors staring meaningfully and mournfully at the camera every five minutes, he seems to have taken every short cut in the sloppy-filmmaking playbook to bring this story to screen. Perhaps he was anxious to be done with the film as soon as possible, but, actually, it’s hard not to blame him; his viewing audience most certainly will feel the same.


The Finest Hours opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll. Proud new member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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