Disaster films are meant to horrify and inspire audiences by portraying the ruthlessness of a disaster and the strength of the ordinary men and women surviving it. Rescue films, on the other hand, show the hope when all is lost and the power that comes from selfless acts. Films based on true events add weight to situations and actions of characters who are no longer fictional. The Finest Hours had the chance to be all these things and more.
But it failed.
On February 18, 1952, the SS Pendleton broke in half during an intense storm off the New England coast. It forced the Coast Guard to send four men on a suicidal mission with a boat several times smaller than the sinking ship they were ordered to save. Despite all odds, the men reached the ship and saved 32 lives; the mission is considered to be the greatest small-boat rescue in history. The Finest Hours should have been about these events.
Instead, the film decided to tell a trite love story of a woman watching her man go out to sea. On the day of the rescue, Bernard Webber (Chris Pine) goes to work hoping to get permission from his Chief Warrant Officer to marry his fiancé, Miriam (Holliday Grainger). The chief responds by ordering him to lead three other men into sea, their safe return not guaranteed.
y spending half of the film focusing on Miriam and how she deals with the dangers Webber faces, the audience fails to connect with the most important characters: the men on the sinking ship and the heroes risking their lives to save them. Miriam’s time onscreen would not have been difficult to watch if her actions weren’t so idiotic. From suddenly remembering the dangers of her fiancé’s job to demanding that the Chief Warrant Officer order Webber to return, Miriam clearly has no sense of logic. Her selfishness and complete disregard for the 32 men at sea diminishes the heroics her future husband manages to pull off.
The film’s scenes on the water are what save it. It shines on the SS Pendleton in particular, with Casey Affleck giving a tremendous performance. In fact, The Finest Hours’ main weakness is that it does not spend enough time there. It also fails to explore the far more interesting story of why the SS Pendleton’s captain refused to listen to Affleck’s character and prevent the ship from being wrecked. While the Coast Guard should receive all the recognition for the tenacity of its men, the story of the SS Pendleton crew is more intriguing. The actual rescue is great, but it seems a little rushed by the end.
The Finest Hours is not terrible and has several moments worth watching, but it could have been so much more. What audiences do get is a film that is at times wonderful and at times unbearable.
The Finest Hours was released nationwide on January 29, 2016.