The second maritime disaster movie in as many months, following December’s In the Heart of the Sea, The Finest Hours, like that other movie, did not have a terribly impressive opening weekend. That’s consistent with Sea, suggesting that people don’t really have an appetite for boat movies right now, though the people who did see Hours gave it an A- CinemaScore, meaning that pretty much everyone liked it. And it is a fine little movie. Sure, it’s kind of hokey and old-fashioned, but it holds together and is more engaging than not. It mostly gets by on the presence of Chris Pine and Casey Affleck, heading up an above-average cast for a standard disaster movie.
Pine stars as Bernie Webber, a Coast Guardsman on Cape Cod in 1952. When a Nor’easter hits, Webber is ordered to take a small rescue boat to go help an oil tanker, the SS Pendleton, which broke in half off the coast of Chatham. There’s no other help to be had, as a second tanker also broke in half on the same day, sucking up the resources from all the other Coast Guard stations. Pine plays Webber as a diffident man, a nearly obsessive rule-follower who is still dealing with the fallout from a failed rescue mission from the year before, in which local fishermen died when Webber couldn’t reach them. His fellow Guardsmen don’t seem to have any faith in him, an attitude embodied by a scowling Ben Foster as a Guardsman who accompanies Webber to rescue the crew of the Pendleton.
Meanwhile, Affleck is in charge on the Pendleton side of things. He stars as Mr. Sybert, an…engineer?...who takes control of the survival effort after the Pendleton’s captain dies when the ship breaks apart. There is not nearly enough Affleck in this movie, as every time he’s on screen Hours kicks into another gear. This is what you get with Casey Affleck, and why I think he’s the better actor in that family. He’s totally believable as a loner who is mostly okay with being widely disliked amongst his crewmates, and he’s also totally believable when he starts issuing orders and trying to save those very same men who disdain him.
Pine’s performance is about straightforward bravery, but Affleck carries a lot more nuance. Sybert seems pretty fatalistic and prepared to die, yet he keeps trying various MacGyver ploys to buy the Pendleton a little more time until help can arrive. He’s not enthusiastic or even very encouraging, and a single-camera shot of Sybert pacing in a flooded hallway, with just a little hitch in his step when the ship finally loses power—all but dooming the remaining crew—is a striking moment. Affleck gets a lot done by not doing much at all.
Which makes it really f*cking annoying every time the story pulls back to the mainland. There’s a subplot about Webber’s would-be fiancé (Holliday Grainger) back on shore, being a relatively ballsy 1950s woman, but yet one who also manages to run off in a huff and immediately crash her car during a raging blizzard, which boggles the mind. Even if these are all 100% true details from real life—the movie is based on a 2009 book of the same name—who gives a sh*t about the townsfolk and their sad faces when four dudes in a tiny boat are trying to scale ginormous waves?! Disaster movies often do this, interjecting “humanizing” side-stories about The Ones Left Behind, and they are almost universally dumb. No one goes to a movie like The Finest Hours to watch Not The Heroes doing Not Saving People stuff.
That aside, The Finest Hours is effective. Directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), the wrecking of the Pendleton is a legitimately frightening scene, and the moment when the rescue boat finally makes it to the wreck is also a stand-out. There’s also a little flair in a late scene using slow-motion water photography in lieu of yet more CG waves, which makes me wish Gillespie had indulged—or perhaps been allowed to indulge—in more unique photography like that. The effects are top-notch, but the movie succeeds in the smaller moments.