Disney’s The Finest Hours is based on a book about the greatest small boat rescue in the history of the Coast Guard.
Bernie Webber and his crew (four, counting him) rescued thirty-two sailors from the aft half of the Pendleton, a tanker sheared in half by a blizzard in February of 1952. The film, which features Chris Pine as Webber, is a very basic story with a little character development and some impressive effects work – but make no mistake, the storm and the rescue are the film’s stars.
We meet Bernie as he is about to meet a girl he’s talked with on the phone for weeks, but has never seen. He’s far more insecure and nervous than you might expect from a handsome guy, but bolstered by encouragement by his best friend (John Magaro), he follows through.
The girl, Miriam (Holliday Grainger, Cinderella), is a stunner and far more self-assured – she feels like a 21st Century woman in the wrong time.
Cut to a year later and she’s proposed to him – which he nearly blows completely (not the brightest bulb on the chandelier) – and the day he approaches his new CO, Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana), to ask for permission to marry her, there’s a blizzard. It’s a nor-easter of epic proportions and before long we learn that it’s sheared not one but two tankers in half.
On the still floating half of the Pendleton, the sailors are fighting about whether they should launch the lifeboats or hang tough and hope they can reach the Coast Guard on a jerry-rigged radio.
1st Assistant Engineer Ray Siebert (Casey Affleck) is pushed by veteran tar Pops (Graham McTavish) to speak up before it comes to blows. Siebert reluctantly takes charge – and even comes up with a plan to keep the remaining segment of the Pendleton afloat long enough for a rescue.
With one crew out trying to rescue sailors from that other sheared ship, Cluff orders Bernie to take a crew and a small boat and get to the Pendleton.
The rest of the film – with a few pauses for the folks on shore – is about Bernie getting the small boat to Pendleton (despite losing its compass) in the face of gale force winds and fifty-foot waves. He might be the brightest guy, but he’s got an almost mystical knowledge of the waters and the kind of old-fashioned grit and decency that keeps a man from quitting until he’s done what he’s got to do.
On shore, Miriam charges into the Coast Guard barracks and demands that Cluff order Bernie to return. Cluff reacts like a fifties guy and orders her to shut up and get out. Later, circumstances place her in a situation where she learns a bit of a lesson on weathering a storm with her man at sea.
Meanwhile, on the Pendleton, even Siebart’s ingenuity is taxed by the storm and he makes a decision to run the remains of the Pendleton aground. All they have to do is find a shoal.
Basically, the thing that keeps The Final Hours afloat is that despite very basic character sketches, the supporting cast infuses their characters with warmth, rage or whatever the plot requires – without seeming to be forcing anything.
The physical demands on Bernie and Siebert and their respective crews is ramped up to an almost unbelievable level – a level we would never believe if this was a fictional tale; if these events hadn’t actually happened.
Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Fright Night) stages the action well and Javier Aguirresarobe is seamlessly married to the CGI effects to create undeniable tension.
The Finest Hours is not the cheesy disaster movie that the ads might have suggested – it’s an earnest tale of something amazing that actually happened. It’s not overly dramatized – with the exception of the romance subplot (which also happened), which feels shoehorned in, The Finest Hours is a decently entertaining film about decent folks trying and succeeding to do the right thing.
Final Grade: B