Somewhere within The Finest Hours is a taut, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride about love, life and the open sea. Unfortunately, it is buried under a mediocre romance and a bevy of New England accents ranging from honest to downright miserable.
The film, which can also be seen in largely useless 3D, has been promoted as both a love story and an epic true tale of high-seas rescue, but it is really three stories in one. The first is a love story between Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) and his future wife, Mariam (Holliday Grainger); the second is a Coast Guard rescue mission lead by Bernie; the third is a tale of survival set aboard a sinking ship stern with a crew of 30-plus overworked men who do everything in their power to live. Two of these stories are great, while one is forgettable and inexplicably overused, and the resulting feature is perfectly fine without ever being as good as you feel it could have been.
We open not on the morning of the storm at the center of the film, but instead on a winter night one year prior when Bernie is about to meet Miriam for the very first time. It’s a cold open that is bursting at the seams with the kind of romantic schmaltz that has become a signature of live-action Disney productions and it lasts for nearly 20 minutes before there is even a mention of pending precipitation. Pine and Grainger both do their best with stiff material, but unless viewers are sold from the get-go, these opening scenes are a slog that feels almost endless.
A year later, Bernie and Miriam are planning to marry, but as per Coast Guard custom, Bernie must seek permission from the station’s commander, Daniel Cliff (Eric Bana). On the day he plans to make his request, a local citizen hears the distress horn of the S.S. Pendleton, an oil tanker that has broken in half less than 10 miles off the coast. With veteran officers already away on another call, Bernie is tasked with leading a rescue attempt at the height of a deadly winter storm.
Sending that call of distress is a ship, or rather the stern of a ship that is miraculously still afloat. The men aboard are immediately aware of their impending doom, and this knowledge leads the men to battle of what is the best course of action. One man, Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), steps up with a plan. It has no guarantees, and it certainly isn’t easy, but in his opinion it’s the best chance for survival. The men agree as well, though it takes some a bit more convincing than others.
Chris Pine is billed as the top talent, but the the true star of the show is in fact Affleck. His turn as Ray Sybert, the engineer who bravely takes it upon himself to organize a strategy for himself and his fellow survivors, is everything you expect from the frequently under-appreciated actor. He’s confident but restrained, armed with the uncanny ability to turn the entire tone of the film with just a passing glance. You feel the weight of every moment on his shoulders without him speaking a word to its existence, and you root for him to survive. You root for everyone aboard This is different from nearly every other story in the film, as you know Bernie will find the ship, just like you know Miriam will do anything she can for her man. You know just about everything that will happen in this film from the drawn-out marketing efforts except for the fate of each man aboard the S. S. Pendleton, and that is where the true magic of this film lies.
I do suspect we will see much more of Holliday Grainger in the years to come. Her performance as Miriam brings a welcomed bit of liveliness to the people of Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Though her role is largely limited to worrying over the fate of her beloved Bernie, Grainger finds a way to showcase her concern without coming across as just another on-screen female crying over her missing man. In fact, Miriam may be one of the tougher characters in the story, as she has to keep her hopes high in spite of an entire community telling her the chances for survival at sea are incredibly low. Her faith in Bernie is only second to her faith in herself, and that quality makes Miriam an endlessly interesting addition to the narrative.
The Finest Hours’ greatest fault is that is tries far too hard to balance its stories. The editing required to make this happen demands the audience make quick emotional transitions that are often quite perplexing. One moment you are watching the men of the Pendleton fight for another moment afloat, then the next you’re seeing Miriam discuss the problems that arise from listening to the radio with the widow of a sailor Bernie once tried to to save. Neither scene is bad in any way, but the juxtaposition between the two takes a lot of energy out of the film. It’s as if every time one story gets interesting, the film chooses to jump to another story at a far less interesting point and start the build-up all over again. If all this eventually lead to one big payoff that would be fine, but that moment never really occurs.
Still, even with its faults The Finest Hours is a largely entertaining affair that is full of strong performances and incredible CGI. The scenes at sea far outshine those that take place on land, but seeing as one location involves an unimaginable disaster and the other does not, that probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. With tighter editing and less focus on romance, this film could have been something special, but as is it makes for a decent distraction from the monotony of daily life and little more. You won’t be talking about this film in five years, but that is fine. It’s good enough to make life a little less boring, and that is far more than anyone can say for the other 2016 theatrical releases thus far.