The Finest Hours is going to look very different on home screens than it does in theaters. That's not just because the action sequences, which recreate an astonishing 1952 Coast Guard rescue, were designed for the biggest screen possible. It's also because, with the aid of subtitles, viewers will actually be able to understand what the characters are saying. Incomprehensibility is frequently a problem in this true-life adventure, which devotes an astonishing number of scenes to quiet men with comically impenetrable faux New England drawls muttering technical jargon through the ear-splitting roar of a struggling engine room or a raging sea. The fear on the actors' faces tells the story adequately enough, and it's a fervid, moving film even without the technical detail. But there's a perpetual sense of meaning being lost as characters grumble incomprehensibly into the gale.
That meaning seems particularly important to director Craig Gillespie, who stages The Finest Hours like a 1950s war epic. Screenwriters Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson previously partnered on the Oscar-nominated script for David O. Russell's The Fighter, and they bring a similar blend of sentiment and grit to Gillespie's film. Drawing from Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman's non-fiction book The Finest Hours: The True Story Of The U.S. Coast Guard's Most Daring Sea Rescue, they frame the rescue as half explosive CGI-effects battle against the elements, half emotional struggle among big-hearted, quiet heroes operating in the name of nobility and humanity. This isn't just an action film; it's a multi-pronged assault on the heartstrings, with plenty of wide-eyed, apple-cheeked Norman Rockwell Americana saturating the pounding digital waves. The film's emotions go overboard almost as often as the frequently soaked sailors.
Chris Pine stars as Coast Guardsman Bernie Webber, a young man shy enough to be flummoxed when his blind date Miriam (Holliday Grainger) turns out to be beautiful, and even more flummoxed when, after a few months of dating, she asks him to marry her. It's unusual in 1952, in the little town of Chatham, Massachusetts, where the women mostly seem to raise the kids, cook the food, and stolidly wait to see whether their men will make it back from their dangerous work at sea. It's February, a particularly treacherous time of year for ships off the northeastern coast, and the film notes early and often the approaching anniversary of the sinking of the William J. Landry, a storm-wrecked fishing boat Bernie tried and failed to save. It's well known that men die at sea, and their would-be rescuers stand a good chance of dying as well.
But Gillespie is in no rush to get Bernie back out into the raging maelstrom. Instead, the script uses his budding relationship with Miriam like the grit that forms a pearl, slowly accreting layers of story around it. Over the first 45 minutes of the movie, the film looks at Bernie's other relationships, from his local-boy closeness with the area fisherman to his awkwardness around other Guardsmen, who resent his rule-abiding earnestness. There are complicated undercurrents moving through the Coast Guard outpost and through Chatham, and the script doesn't express all of them subtly. But it does capably capture the density of feeling among people forced to live or work together, and the way complicated emotions surface in small ways: an eye-roll here, a grunt of derision there.
Quiet, internal men who make life-saving decisions
While Bernie's backstory unfurls, a crisis builds at sea: A violent storm tears two different oil tankers in half off the coast. The Fort Mercer gets off a distress signal, and Massachusetts' rescue efforts focus on that ship. But the Pendleton lacks a working radio, and the 30-plus surviving crew members on the stern half of the sinking ship disagree about whether to abandon ship. Ultimately, chief engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) takes charge of the remains of the Pendleton, and heads up the effort to keep the crew alive until help can come. And Bernie and his inadequate boat have to brave blinding snow, gale-force winds, and crushing waves to provide that help.
Without making any great fuss out of it, The Finest Hours draws a line of comparison between Bernie and Ray. They're both quiet, internal men who start the film barely able to make eye contact with other people, and end up decisively making choices that save dozens of lives. Neither seek out leadership, but both become leaders through sheer force of confidence. Their form of heroism makes an interesting contrast with the protagonists of Michael Bay's recent Benghazi movie 13 Hours, who share many of the same traits, but come from a more macho, grab-ass, aggressive tradition, and express their competence with guns instead of wrenches and engines.
But Finest Hours isn't as concerned with mythologizing individual heroes. It has a more diffuse, and more unusual focus on the community around those heroes, that works in fits and starts. The filmmakers bring many of the side characters to the foreground, from the brother and widow of one lost Landry fisherman to several of the Pendleton crew members. But Grainger, who makes a brave job out of turning Miriam into a bold, smart, unconventional woman, is really only there to learn that Sometimes Men Have To Go Into Battle. In the same way, Bana gets significant screen time to wrestle with his unconvincing Southern accent, but he's so underdeveloped that it's hard to tell whether he's being portrayed as callous or determined, an incompetent leader or the only man at the station capable of judging his own men's potential.
And the film's strident emotional manipulation sometimes distracts from the subtlety of its writing. Carter Burwell's insistent score crashes down on the film as heavily as the 30-foot waves crash onto Bernie's pathetically dinky rescue ship. Gillespie has an almost Spielbergian love of close-ups of his characters gaping at the ineffable — in this case, usually killer waves rather than aliens or dinosaurs. The scenes tend to run long, until even the most hair-raising battle against the elements starts to feel overextended. And those drawling fake accents are often dreadful, especially during the endless debates over whether Bernie will be able to get his rescue boat across the lethal, unpredictable Chatham Bar, which in local parlance is just "the baaaaah." There are moments in this otherwise solemn, adult film where a bunch of military men discussing life-or-death matters literally sound like a flock of dyspeptic sheep.
But The Finest Hours is still a much stronger film than the familiar disaster-movie treatment of its trailers suggests. The scenes at sea are riveting and punishing, with the CGI storm providing a convincing chill. The filmmakers also capture the eerie stillness of a big ship's interior, even under the worst conditions. And there's a remarkable lack of hand-holding and overexplaining in the script, which assumes audiences can follow along with the action, whether or not they understand sailor jargon.
The Finest Hours is a Walt Disney production, and in its unhurried pacing, wholesome relationships, sentimental journey, and message of uplift, it feels like an old-school throwback to a much earlier age of Disney filmmaking. The digital effects are modern, but the film's spirit comes from the 1950s, and from a Thomas Kinkade vision of warm lights in the darkness, guiding sailors home from calamity. It's unquestionably no movie for cynics. But cynics have plenty of movies already. This one's for anyone who wants to believe in a vision of an America where people commit selfless acts not with a cowboy swagger and a cocky smirk, but shyly, blushing at all the attention.