Movie Review: The Finest Hours

The most daring rescue operation in Coast Guard history is faithfully recreated in this rousing old-fashioned adventure

The Finest Hours


Directed by Craig Gillespie. Starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Casey Affleck, Josh Stewart, Eric Bana, Rachel Brosnahan, Michael Raymond-James, Holliday Grainger, Graham McTavish, Kyle Gallner, Abraham Benrubi, Beau Knapp, John Magaro, Keiynan Lonsdale, John Ortiz. Written by Eric Johnson, Paul Tamasy, Scott Silver, from the book by book by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman.

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In the winter of 1952, a fierce nor’easter featuring 70-foot winds and 60-foot waves tore apart the SS Fort Mercer off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Surviving members of the sinking vessel were able to send out an SOS, and the US coast guard attempted a daring rescue. 

But less than 40 miles away, a second oil tanker was also torn in half. Radio equipment had been destroyed, and 32 surviving members on the stern of the ship struggled to gain some kind of control of the vessel.  

Meanwhile, a coast guard station caught wind of the ship through coastal radar, and sent a four-man crew on a small motorboat into harsh conditions to investigate the situation. The boat had room for 12 people.

The Finest Hours tells the story of the Pendleton, focusing on Bernard C. Webber, the young coxswain captain of that tiny motorboat who became the unwitting hero of what has since been called “the greatest small boat rescue in Coast Guard history.”

It’s a sturdy, old-fashioned Disney-produced thing, and it’s just fine as fine as far as that goes. Critics seem to be holding the film’s traditional nature against it – this is the kind of movie that might have been made during the era it recreates – but director Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm) overcomes the formulaic story elements to deliver a rousing tale of adventure. 

Cast against type, Chris Pine plays Webber, a timid young guardsman who follows orders and blushes at the mention of girls – something that couldn’t be further from his portrayal of Captain Kirk in the Star Trek films. 

But Pine is a convincing and a sturdy presence in the lead, playing someone who wants to do the right thing even if that may mean leading himself and his small crew to certain danger. I liked the initial storyline between him and a romantic interest played by Holliday Granger; her Miriam is dominant in early scenes, but later on she has little to do other than stare at the ocean and hope for the best. 

Eric Bana is Daniel Cluff, the commanding officer, non-native to the area, who sends Webber and a small team on the daring rescue mission. At sea, Ben is joined by Richard Livesey (Ben Foster, more restrained than usual), Andy Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner), and Ervin Maske (John Magaro).

Parallel to their story – and perhaps more interesting – is the story of the surviving crew aboard the Pendleton, struggling to devise a plan with their half of the ship rapidly sinking and a raging sea far too dangerous to lower lifeboats into. 

But against some resistance from other crew members, Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) comes up with a potential solution: build and use a manual rudder to navigate the back half of the giant tanker towards shore, running it aground before the power gives out and cuts the engine and pumps off. 

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When Webber and his crew finally catch up with the Pendleton and realize the situation they’re in, the rescue operation makes for tense and exciting stuff. But it’s all over too quickly, I felt: the plotting could have been expanded upon to milk this harrowing situation for all its worth. 

The stormy sea effects in the movie are entirely convincing – less artificial, I felt, than the recent In the Heart of the Sea – though we never feel the freezing-cold environment as fully as we did, say, in The Revenant. But simple scenes of navigating that motorboat over a roaring series of waves are unexpectedly rousing.

Well-cast, well-produced, and seemingly faithful to the real-life operation it depicts, The Finest Hours is a rousing, if minor, success. If the only real negative here is that the film is too old-fashioned to compete with the kinetic Michael Bay actioners of today, well, that’s just fine by me.

In 3D, however, this movie is a dark, murky mess. The events of the film take place almost entirely at night, at sea, in the midst of raging snow and wind, and you’ll be straining your eyes to make out what is going on during many sequences.

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