A film review by Craig J. Koban February 8, 2016


2016, R, 117 mins.


Chris Pine as Bernie Webber  /  Ben Foster as Richard Livesey  /  Casey Affleck as Ray Sybert  /  Eric Bana as Daniel Cluff  /  Holliday Grainger as Miriam  /  Rachel Brosnahan as Bea Hansen  /  Graham McTavish as Frank Fateux  /  Kyle Gallner as Andy Fitzgerald  /  Josh Stewart as Tchuda Southerland  /  Beau Knapp as Mel Gouthro  /  Keiynan Lonsdale as Eldon Hanan  /  John Magaro as Ervin Maske

Directed by Craig Gillespie  /  Written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson  /  Based on the book by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias


The descriptor “old fashioned” often gets thrown out in film review circles these days with a largely negative connotation.  

THE FINEST HOURS is a new historical man versus nature disaster film that’s old fashioned to its very core.  It’s told with broad and traditional strokes, to be sure, and contains many of the standard troupes of fact based adventure dramas that have been utilized countless times before.  Yet, director Craig Gillespie (LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, FRIGHT NIGHT, MILLION DOLLAR ARM) understands how to navigate around such conventions and produces a handsomely mounted and thoroughly stirring film that embraces it’s old fashioned virtues without unintentionally feeling slavish to them.  

Based on the book THE FINEST HOURS: THE TRUE STORY OF THE U.S. COAST GUARD’S MOST DARING SEA RESCUE by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman, Gillespie’s film details events that occurred off the coast of New England on February 18, 1952, during which time a hellish winter storm swooped in and literally ripped an oil tanker – the the SS Pendleton – in half, leaving the crew doomed.  While the ship was unable to send out distress signals due to damaged communication systems, the nearby Massachusetts Coast Guard learned of its predicament and sent out a small vessel of their own with a four-man crew in a courageous rescue attempt.  Considering that the enormous oil tanker was shredded by the dangerous conditions, the prospects of an infinitely smaller ship making it through the same dangerous waters was a borderline suicidal prospect at best. 



THE FINEST HOURS opens rather quietly, though, before it dives into the particulars of the incalculably daring rescue operation.   We’re introduced to a somewhat meek mannered, but duty and honor bound Coast Guard Captain Bernie Weber (Chris Pine, refreshingly playing a character well against type) that meets and falls in love with Miriam (newcomer Holliday Grainger, an actress that was born to be shown in close-up), a young operator that doesn’t quite have a firm grasp on the magnitude and dangers of Bernie’s occupation.  The couple decides to marry, but before that can happen Bernie’s Commander, Daniel (Eric Bana), discovers the fate of the SS Pendleton and its 34-man crew.  Realizing that very few choices are left on the table, Daniel gives the okay for Bernie to lead a four man rescue operation – comprising of Andy (Kyle Gallner), Richard (Ben Foster), and Ervin (John Magaro) – to depart on a meager 36-foot boat (using mostly instincts and a whole lot of guts) to find and rescue the Pendleton crew.  Miriam begins to see the mission for what it really is, but despite her intense reservations, Bertie seems bound and determined to locate his nautical comrades and return them home safely. 

Concurrent to this story thread is the one on board the Pendleton itself, with its entire crew waging mental wars with each other as to the right course of action to take after their oil tanker had been broken in half.  The ship itself is taking in a massive amount of sea water, leaving its sinking a slow, but painfully inevitable certainty.  Some members of the crew want to take their chances on the water with life boats, but the tanker’s chief engineer Ray (a robustly confident Casey Affleck) has a better and more inventive plan for survival: He wants to steer the vessel – using some MacGyver-like intuition and mechanical know-how – onto a nearby shoal in order to keep the vessel afloat for as long as possible to ensure a higher probability of being located.  Of course, many in his crew believe his plan to be crazy, but when the storm outside becomes worse – forcing them to realize that escape via lifeboats is impossible – Ray’s audacious plan seems like the only viable option left.   

THE FINEST HOURS is comprised of many predictable elements through and through: the somewhat greenhorn, yet determined young hero that wants to prove himself; the girlfriend back home that grows more petrified by the minute of her lover’s chances of survival; a vessel’s crew that has ideological differences regarding survival plans; the commanding officer that must remain a stoic and professional figurehead in the face of unspeakable emotional hardships; and so on.  Yet, it’s Gillespie’s tactful handling of these obligatory elements that helps elevate THE FINEST HOURS above the laundry list of other throwaway fact-based survival films.  As a grand adventure yarn showcasing intrepid men displaying the utmost valor when faced with improbably odds of success, the film is largely engaging and thoroughly suspenseful.  It would have been deceptively easy for Gillespie to get bogged down in sentimental and manipulative schmaltz, but he somehow manages to make THE FINEST HOURS breathlessly enthralling despite its formulaic storytelling. 

The production design of the picture is routinely stellar throughout, as Gillespie spares no expense whatsoever in taking viewers back several decades, not to mention that the visual effects utilized here to recreate the disaster at sea and the Coast Guard’s rescue attempt are sort of thanklessly impressive on a level of immersion and veracity.  On a purely visceral notes of making audience members truly feel like they’re at sea suffering with these immeasurably brave souls, THE FINEST HOURS is an absolute technical triumph.  Beyond the film’s impeccably strong production artifice, Gillespie also relays the psychological horrors that befall these service men and how they had to keep calm and collected to ensure their very survival.  The emotional toll on these stranded souls must have been severe, and THE FINEST HOURS is on resoundingly strong ground conveying them overcoming anxiety-riddled hopelessness to band together to ensure their rescue.   

The performances in the film are sort of quietly powerful, perhaps more so that what I’ve been accustomed to in these types of large-scale disaster films before.  Pine usually plays characters with a cocksure and likeable arrogance, which makes his more reserved and introverted performance here as Bernie all the more compelling.  He not only portrays his character’s unwavering gallantry and commitment to a cause, but also his intimidation by the daunting mission he finds himself involved in.  Pine’s more internalized approach here is an invigorating foil to the types of roles he’s played numerous times before.  Casey Affleck – one of the more underrated and fascinating actors working today – has a manner of finding small little performance beats and idiosyncrasies with his respective character that speaks volumes as to his thought processes and own internal struggles.  Rounding off the film’s decidedly good performance triumvirate is Grainger, and despite being saddled with the grieving-wife-stuck-back-home role, she nevertheless infuses a tremendous amount of soul and headstrong conviction in it.    

THE FINEST HOURS – if you pardon the expression – is not completely watertight.  The film’s prologue showing Bertie’s and Miriam’s courtship is somewhat overly long (granted, the natural chemistry between the two stars makes it more forgiving).  It also could be said that the film’s sheer spectacle somehow overwhelms a sense of emotional and dramatic connection to the characters and their plights.  The 3D conversion on the film is a murky disaster too, leaving an already dark and ominous looking film almost indecipherable at times with its unnecessary multi-dimensional “upgrade.”  Yet, as a thrilling and inspirational crowd pleaser, THE FINEST HOURS more than achieves its status quo.  Much like THE PERFECT STORM (another true story film showcasing men battling horrendous conditions at sea) THE FINEST HOURS doesn’t reinvent the wheel as far as these genre films go, but it really knows how to spin it effectively in crafting an undeniably harrowing drama.  Gillespie’s film is workmanlike and, yes, old fashioned, but it unpretentiously gets the job done…and much more so than other films that typically and unceremoniously get dumped at the multiplexes in late January every year; it emerges as a surprisingly assured cut above the rest.

  H O M E