These two hours will not be your finest.
In 1952 the U.S. Coast Guard pulled off the most daring and unlikely rescue in its history. Violent winds and waves from a fierce nor’easter tore two oil tankers asunder off the coast of Cape Cod, yet the destruction of the second of those halved ships, the Pendleton, nearly went unnoticed amidst the chaos. With rescue resources focused on the other ship, the crew of the Pendleton stood little chance of salvation, and ultimately only a lone motor lifeboat (with a mere 12-person capacity) was deployed. The following hours would prove to be a duel between physics and fate.
Disney’s The Finest Hours details the harrowing ordeal, while focusing on the romantic relationship between by-the-book Bernard Webber (Chris Pine), the man charged with helming the rescue mission, and his strong-willed fiancée Miriam (Holliday Grainger). Bernie and Miriam’s courtship takes place against the backdrop of their Rockwellian town; they attend wholesome dinners and community dances together as snowflakes fall and soft lighting pours from windows. Defying convention as only a righteous period-movie dame can, Miriam boldly proposes to Bernie. Too bad he’s sent out on a suicide rescue mission before he has the chance to ask his commanding officer for the time off.
Parallel to Bernie’s deference to both his girl and his superiors (despite the seeming impossibility of even getting the tiny rescue boat out of the harbor), the film also follows the crew of the Pendleton, who concoct makeshift strategies in the engine room in order to keep their ship afloat long enough for at least a long-shot chance at rescue. There’s a salty, old sea dog (Graham McTavish), a brash bully (Michael Raymond-James), a singing cook (Abraham Benrubi) and the film’s other hero, Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), whose quick decision-making saves lives. We don’t learn much more about them than that.
After debuting with quirky indie notable Lars and the Real Girl, director Craig Gillespie has jumped into the pocket of the Mouse. The Finest Hours marks his third straight picture for Walt Disney, and his least effective to date. The scope of the project—can anything strain toward epic stature quite like a 3D shipwreck?—doesn’t mesh well with the quaintness of the romance and of the Cape Cod town. The sentimentality that overrides the storytelling quickly causes The Finest Hours to take on water. We spend far too much time with Bernie and Miriam, and far too little with the crew of the Pendleton, to the point that when a body drifts down into the murky depths in what’s meant to be an artistic and emotionally powerful shot, we know little more about the guy than a random piece of driftwood. What’s more, Bernie is less a hero than a milquetoast who obediently takes ill-conceived orders from his boss (Eric Bana, spouting one of the worst attempts at a Southern accent ever put to film). Bernie blindly follows orders until he doesn’t, but any success he finds from his defying regulations is largely from dumb luck.
The Finest Hours also makes poor use of its 3D, with its falling snowflakes far more visually compelling in that medium than the shipwreck itself. The rescue sequence makes some waves, but it’s over quickly and ferries us right back to the schmaltz. Pine and Grainger turn in serviceable acting performances as our heartstring-tugging leads, but they play it a little too cute for their own good. Worst of all, as winds howl and waves batter, important characters routinely pause to reflect or share an inspirational line despite the encroaching peril. If you like candy-coated feel-goodery dressed up as historic disaster porn, go enjoy this film—but for everyone else, these two hours will not be your finest.