From the Archives: The Finest Hours review

From the Archives: The Finest Hours review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

In the winter of 1952, a record-breaking Nor’easter hit New England, setting the seas into a state of extreme turbulence. Amidst this meteorological madness, two tanker ships, the SS Fort Mercer and the SS Pendleton, are smashed to pieces. The Mercer manages to send a distress signal, resulting in an immediate rescue operation from the Coast Guard, but the Pendleton is too damaged for the crew to do much of anything but hope. When a random tow-truck driver notices the Pendleton’s lights cutting through the fog, he alerts the now depleted local Guard who decide, against reason, to mount a rescue. The leader of this operation is Bernie Webber (Chris Pine – totally made for this kind of thing). Bernie led a failed rescue mission roughly a year prior, and despite having done all that he could, his reputation was severely damaged. This, coupled with a blind sense of duty, is what drives him to take a tiny ship on a suicide mission. It’s the most basic of character motivations, but in a movie so shamelessly old-timey, it works.


And that’s the trick of The Finest Hours: despite the modern, shiny action sequences, the story is delightfully old-fashioned. Yes, the characters are underdeveloped and the dialogue is cliche-ridden, but I suspect (see: hope) that this is all intentional. One would do well not to resist its charms in the name of a fully fleshed-out story, and choose instead to bask in the classic “all for one, one for all” heroics, where manly men fight to save the day because it’s the right thing to do.

While Bernie and his skeleton crew (complete with an underused Ben Foster) take their rinky dink boat through “the breaks,” the crew of the Pendleton is working to stay afloat long enough for rescue. The Pendleton’s reluctant leader comes in the form of Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck, also totally made for this kind of thing), the one sailor who seems to know the ship inside and out. Naturally there’s a crewman who offers resistance (who put you in charge, kid?) to any of Ray’s suggestions, for no reason other than that he looks a bit like Mickey Rourke. Yet as thin as his character is, he undoubtedly belongs in this rousing roster of tropes. Yes, all your favorites are here: a bearded, bald strongman with a soft heart and tattoos from a previous life; the affable cook who sings “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” much to the dismay of his fellow crewmen; the vaguely ethnic man who is the only soul capable of calming down faux-Rourke. Every single one of these guys is ripped straight out of early Hollywood, and it’s lovely to behold.

While the action focuses mostly on the two ships and the impending rescue, a small portion of the runtime is based around the happenings on land. Bernie’s fiancé, Miriam (Holiday Grainger, also totally made for this kind of thing), is essentially a placeholder, and doesn’t have much to do short of providing the required romantic angle. I’d be tempted to say she is sidelined, but Miriam is no-less developed then anyone else in the film. Once again, I cite the wonderful old-fashioned tone – the women stand by their men, the men by their women, and gosh durnit, we’re gonna do everything we can to bring our boys in blue home! Grab me a phosphate soda, Johnny. I’m red hot!


So yeah, it’s a bit silly, but earnestly so, and if you’re willing to let the heart-on-its-sleeve tone wash over you, you might find yourself as charmed as I was. But a disaster movie is not judged solely on its story.

In this day and age, even an old-fashioned tale needs convincing disaster effects, and The Finest Hours is nearly successful in this department. We have yet to reach a point where CG-driven nautical action looks real. We’re certainly close, but it only seems to work when the film in question has a fantastical element. Life of Pi is supposed to look heightened, as is Pirates of the Caribbean, but when it comes time to create a real-life environment, one in which we can feel the danger surrounding the characters, it simply hasn’t been done. The Finest Hours manages to come close, evoking a remarkable amount of tension from a combination of digital imagery and practical sets, but it still doesn’t fully sell. Nonetheless, it’s progress, and after managing to go against conventional film nerd wisdom to give us a worthy Fright Night remake, director Craig Gillespie has proven to be of a higher caliber than many mass market directors of his ilk. Even if the movie is middling in overall quality, Gillespie’s considerable talent is on display.

The Finest Hours opens in Philly theaters today.

Official site

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