The Finest Hours is three movies — one excellent, one merely adequate, one potentially excellent but hobbled by haphazard editing — awkwardly stitched together into one.
The film traces the very true story of the wreck of the SS Pendleton off the coast of Massachusetts in the middle of a horrible nor'easter. Only a small Coast Guard crew and their tiny vessel stood between the 30-plus men onboard the ship and the bottom of the Atlantic.
Daring rescue missions are all well and good as movie fodder goes, but The Finest Hours splits its attention in too many directions — and uses a few too many budget-saving tricks here and there, which threaten its authenticity.
Movie #1, the most compelling of the three, is basically Apollo 13 on an oil tanker
By far the most compelling portions of The Finest Hours involve the men onboard the Pendleton itself. The ship breaks into two halves, and one of them, which carries both the captain and the radio, sinks to the ocean floor. The other, somewhat improbably, remains afloat, but out in the middle of the sea, with no way to signal land as to its predicament. It's also, as you'd expect, taking on water. And there's that storm to worry about.
Casey Affleck, whose slightly sunken face and grim demeanor often make him a weird fit for the big screen, turns out to be a natural at playing a guy who's staying a half-step ahead of death at all times. As Ray Sylbert, who figures out a hugely unlikely, everything-has-to-go-right-for-it-to-succeed rescue plan, Affleck projects a kind of calm certainty that death is probably inevitable — but if anyone can cheat it, it's him. His nifty, jerry-rigged solutions turn this third of the film into Apollo 13 on a sinking oil tanker.
Director Craig Gillespie has long been great at sketching in communities on film. His best movie, the 2007 dramedy Lars and the Real Girl, was one of the finest small-town movies of the decade, and his best work in this film concerns the 32 men left aboard the unsunk half of the Pendleton. His camera swoops between them as they convey messages to each other, and his framing neatly conveys the way the characters evolve from squabbling workmates who don't really like each other into men with a mission.
Movie #2 is just Chris Pine going up and over giant waves in a little boat
The bulk of the film's running time is spent with Chris Pine as Bernie Webber, a member of the Coast Guard who heads up the attempted rescue of the Pendleton. Pine is usually a capable centerpiece of these kinds of tales, but the film requires him — and Affleck's character, too, actually — to be a reluctant hero, scarred by a dark moment in his past. And playing a man who's so reticent is not really a strength of Pine's. He's much better at playing brash and bold.
On some level, The Finest Hours means to be a tribute to the men of its era — the film is set in the early 1950s. The movie mythologizes this sort of man as one who doesn't require glory. He simply does the job he needs to do when asked, and won't turn back if he can do it even better. Both Webber and Sylbert fit this view of heroism, but it leaves you sort of hoping that someone will come in and provide that brash, mesmerizing presence the film lacks.
Webber is haunted by a rescue he couldn't pull off a year ago, but The Finest Hours mostly hides this in its backstory, turning it into a pointless mystery to be solved (even though the audience will figure it out fairly early on). This traumatic past is meant to serve as the character's dramatic center, but because we don't really see how it affects him or others, it becomes largely hollow.
Thus, the film eventually becomes an attempt by Webber to make his way to the Pendleton — sans compass! — while surmounting giant wave after giant wave, his tiny crew clinging to their little boat as tightly as they can. And the rescue attempt, lacking either visual variety or strong character work, becomes fairly rote, fairly quickly.
This section is also plagued by some bad visual effects and compositing work. The waves themselves are gorgeous, menacing things. But there are frequent scenes where the actors are filmed in close-up, the angry seas roiling behind them, that look like bad green-screen work from a 1950s adventure picture.
Movie #3 is the obligatory "girlfriend waits back home" plot
At times, it feels like there was a four-hour cut of The Finest Hours, one that was much more about the psychological toll of working in the Coast Guard and the way that little seaside communities learn to cope with the loss of those they have buried beneath the waves.
And the worst portions of The Finest Hours are the ones set back on land, where it feels like everything has been pared back far too much from that hypothetical much-longer cut.
In particular, the story focuses on Webber's fiancée, Miriam (Holliday Grainger). Their relationship is presented perfunctorily — they meet, and one scene later they're getting engaged. And Miriam's role in the story mostly consists of her standing ashore and learning about the horrible uncertainty that comes with being a Coast Guard wife.
There are scenes where Gillespie's skill for telling stories about smaller communities peeks through, and there are scenes where recognizable character actors pop up for a handful of shots, making it obvious that this section of the film was dramatically trimmed. For the most part, these scenes get in the way of everything else, without really justifying why they're there.
There's probably a version of The Finest Hours that gives all of these plots room to breathe. But as it stands, the stuff onboard the Pendleton is the only part of the movie that remains compelling throughout — and it only accounts for a third of the running time.
The Finest Hours is playing throughout the country. It's in 3D for some reason. Take your dad.