The Finest Hours tells “the true story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s most daring sea rescue,” which is not exactly a story anyone was asking for, but it’s January so we’re getting it anyway. The truth is, it’s not bad — it’s a fine movie (obligatory) that is intermittently entertaining and fairly suspenseful if you don’t know anything about the real story and your only other experience with nor’easter boat movies is The Perfect Storm, where everyone died and no one lived to tell the story but somehow there’s a very detailed account of it anyway.
Back in 1951, there was a storm so bad that two oil tankers off the New England coast broke in half. You’d think if an oil tanker split in half, it’d sink like a stone, but that’s only because you’re as dumb as I am about ships. Sure, the front half — with the captain and much of the crew — glugged glugged to the bottom of the Atlantic, but the back half kept on floating along, or at least that was the case for one of these oil tankers, the USS Pendleton. Unfortunately, almost all of the Coast Guard had gone to rescue the folks on the other one, leaving poor Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) behind with a small crew (Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner, and John Magaro) with a fairly small life boat nearly incapable of crossing “the bar” (or “bah” if you’re from Massachusetts) without capsizing.
However, the Captain of the station (Eric Bana, what happened to your career, man?) is not familiar with nor’easters and won’t listen to anyone when they tell him that they’re sending Bernie and his men on a suicide mission. Bernie’s a take-orders kind of fella, so he and his rag-tag crew set out to find that oil tanker anyway knowing that they probably won’t return.
Meanwhile, Casey Affleck plays Ray Sybert, the engine man on the oil tanker, who struggles along with the rest of his men (John Ortiz, Graham McTavish, Michael Raymond-James (Terriers!), etc.) to keep the tanker afloat long enough for a rescue team to arrive. Sure, there’s 28 people on the oil tanker, and Bernie is bringing the boat equivalent of a Volkswagen Bug, but when facing almost certain death, leg room is not exactly a priority.
From there, there’s a lot of water. Some waves. Some more water, and some more waves, a few bold pronouncements, some platitudes, and some sage wisdom from crusty old New Englanders. Also, water and waves.
It’s a modestly diverting and — at times — crowd-pleasing affair, but there’s not much to it. Chris Pine — who has charm in spades — is wasted in a role that calls for a quiet, socially awkward guy with an accent that’s more Maine than Boston. Casey Affleck and Ben Foster are as good as they always are, even if they aren’t given much to do (Foster, in particular, mostly just stares ahead as their lifeboat crashes into waves). There’s also a tacked-on love story featuring a love interest for Bernie played by Holiday Grainger, and it does what it’s meant to do by increasing the personal stakes.
There’s nothing really wrong with The Finest Hours, and it’s certainly not a movie worthy of scorn. What the real-life Bernie Webber and his crew managed to do in 1951 was an exceptional feat; unfortunately, it just doesn’t lend itself particularly well to a two-hour movie.