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The true story that inspired director Craig Gillespie’s new film The Finest Hours is one so amazing that it’s kind of incredible that it’s never been adapted before. It’s a tale of love, danger, courage and ingenuity, and has a bit of the “miraculous” sprinkled on top. And while the movie itself runs into a few issues in its telling of the story, it’s still a pretty impressive one to watch unfold.
Based on the book of the same name by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias, The Finest Hours is set in the early 1950s and centers on the story of Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), a United States Coast Guardsman who has spent his whole life doing everything by the book – not even willing to call himself engaged to the love of his life, Miriam (Holliday Grainger), until he gets permission from his commanding officer. He has a touch of a tragic past, having once failed to save many lives during a rescue mission, but remains resilient and brave in the face of overwhelming odds.
This resilience and bravery becomes incredibly important when a terrific disaster strikes during epic storm conditions. Ten miles off the coast, the waves prove to be so rough that a T2 tanker gets completely split in half – with the bow sinking and the stern left floating but slowly sinking. Tragically, an almost identical disaster twenty miles off the coast of Nantucket leaves almost every available rescue ship otherwise occupied, and first assistant engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) stalling to keep the ship and 30-plus surviving members of the crew alive and above water. From all perspectives, it seems like a circumstance from which it’s impossible to survive, but that doesn’t stop Bernie Webber from committing to his duties, putting together a skeleton crew (Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner, John Magaro), and taking to the sea in a small vessel in an attempt to save lives.
Employing a split narrative that has audiences following along with the events on the ship as closely as the rescue mission, there are constantly new obstacles for the characters to work their way around, and new threats presenting themselves, allowing the sense of danger to feel constant and the stakes all the higher. Whether it’s Sybert’s mission to steer towards a shoal and stop the T2 from sinking, or the bar of smashing waves keeping Webber and his crew separated from destroyed ship, the movie is constantly making you question whether or not the heroes will survive, and keeps you invested in their fate. It doesn’t all work, as time spent with Miriam on shore as the worried significant other unfortunately doesn’t really add much of anything to the narrative (basically because you don’t need extra incentive to hope Bernie lives), but the positive qualities of the story outweigh the negatives.
In its ensemble, The Finest Hours does get a bit kitschy with its supporting characters – with crew members like “big guy who likes to sing” and “mumbly guy only one person understands” – but the film is anchored by its solid co-lead performances from Chris Pine and Casey Affleck. From an outward personality perspective, the former is the complete antithesis of his Captain Kirk persona – much more introverted and soft-spoken – but is as engaging as the Enterprise captain because of how charismatic and steadfast he is going into what looks like a suicide mission (which obviously Pine sells incredibly well). On the other side, though, Sybert as a character actually isn’t meant to be all that personable (as is actively disliked by most of his crew), but Affleck makes you respect him if not only because his blunt attitude winds up being so perfect in such a crisis. Both men are put in the position of carrying the film, and both certainly pull their weight.
Though it doesn’t really offer much in the way of a big 3D experience (not doing anything with the third dimension other than making everything a bit darker), The Finest Hours has an aesthetic to match its impressive story and does a tremendous job in its portrayal of tempestuous conditions on the water in tandem with creating a period setting. After the Coast Guardsmen set sail, director Craig Gillespie takes every opportunity to launch waves that feel like they could possibly take out a hero, and the movie is entirely convincing in its blend of both practical and visual effects in production design and larger action sequences. All of it is very new terrain from the filmmaker who previously brought us Lars and the Real Girl and Million Dollar Arm, and just all the more impressive as a result.
“Based On A True Story” movies are a dime a dozen, but The Finest Hours is a rare example where you walk out of it actually impressed that the events went down as they did. It doesn’t all hang together as a film, with some buttons pressed too hard, and others too softly, but it succeeds as a compelling drama, telling a story that’s worth telling.