You know the year's just begun when Disney debuts their latest inspiriational drama. Usually geared towards the sports world (Miracle, McFarland USA), this year's feature is a water-logged mix of The Perfect Storm meets Kevin Costner's The Guardian set in Stephen King's Castle Rock. The lobster roll they form is The Finest Hours, a film whose B-plot should be the film's main focus but instead looks at an A-plot so cutesy and generic you'll get a cavity just watching.
1952, Chatham, Massachusetts. An oil tanker named the Pendleton gets caught in a horrific storm that leaves the boat broken in two and the remaining sailors scrambling to keep it afloat. Tasked with rescuing everyone, Coast Guard member Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) takes a crew out in a small vessel. But can he rescue everyone and not get his own crew killed?
The advertising campaign wants you to draw comparisons between this and The Perfect Storm, and outside of the impressive wave and water sequences, the line stops there. It's been awhile since I watched the George Clooney drama but that film contained a tight number of characters, and if The Finest Hours wants to be in the same boat (no pun intended) it needs to stick to where the suspense is.
Said suspense, and the exemplary acting, is found with the sailors of the Pendleton, led by engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck). We're given just enough information on each of the characters in the ship's belly to care about them - there's the older man defends Sybert, Sybert's the black sheep the men don't like, the singing cook - and from there the film lurches into action. The splitting of the boat could have copied Titanic, but watching a patched seam split open becomes a harrowing race to stop the water from drowning everyone.
Once the boat cracks in two, harrowingly filmed against a black sky, it's as terrifying as watching the young girl enter the blackened ocean in Jaws. Director Craig Gillespie, of Lars and the Real Girl fame, captures some fantastic moments involving waves, surging gushes of water, as well as some haunting night imagery that gives off the cold hand of death just by leaving scenes bathed in darkness.
From there the film becomes a race against time with Sybert's ingenuity keeping the boat afloat. History between the two actors notwithstanding, Casey Affleck's Sybert draws parallels to Matt Damon's Mark Watney of The Martian; both men use their brains and science to pull off the impossible. Affleck's great at playing the underdog and he proves he should be given far more leading man roles than he is. He unifies the crew, half of whom want to abandon ship with little regard for where they'll end up, and crafts the idea for a manual tiller in the hopes of shoring up the boat on a shoal.
Even though the rest of the crew is nameless - you'll be playing a lot of "that's the guy from [insert TV/movie here]" during this - there's still a sense of unity among them. When one of the Pendleton's men dies, in a scene terrifyingly grim for Disney, you may see it as a token death, which it is, but you still care about the character.
The script, credited to Scott Silver, Paul Tamsay, and Eric Johnson (based off the book by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Touglas), underscores the men of the Pendleton by making it the B-plot. To them, the "finest hour" is more about the Coast Guard rescue, and that would be fine if the plotline had equal weight in terms of acting and narrative momentum.
Unlike the men on the Pendleton, whose lack of overwrought storylines are unnecessary because their lives are in danger - Sybert expertly sums it up that no one man's life is worth less just because some have families and others don't - Bernie Webber is a character wrapped up in necessary exposition to make you care about him; he's slathered in frosting when you just need the cupcake.
Bernie's a shy guy and perfect gentlemen who seemingly has trouble getting girls and from the first minute Pine's on-screen his character is all self-deprecation. Why would ANY girl want to date him? He's just an average Joe despite looking like, you know, Chris Pine. And, because this is a Disney movie, Bernie also has to redeem himself after failing to bring in some men whose fishing boat sunk; apparently the whole town judges him (even though the main judgement comes from one guy). So what better way to get back on top than almost get an entire crew killed by going on a dangerous rescue?
The rescue efforts see Pine teamed up with Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner, and John Magaro in a boat that would make the Minnow blush. There are definitely some tense moments, specifically watching Magaro sit in a little nest in front of the boat where he could be swept out at any minute, but too many moments of forced levity, and the fact we're given way too many cutesy moments leading up to this, make everything feel flat. Pine and the actors are all good, but they're perfectly bland fodder.
The two fractured stories blend together by the film's second hour, but we're given a prior hour of exposition focused solely on Pine's character and no one else. Despite being about a daring rescue the movie starts with Bernie on a date, meeting the woman he'll eventually marry, Miriam (Holliday Grainger). These moments are played up to be Notebook-esque, and though Grainger looks like an actress out of old Hollywood, her character induces head slaps. According to the men folk Miriam is "different" from the other girls in the town; she wears fur coats, walks into the Coast Guard office (because apparently no wife has ever brought her husband lunch), and proposes to Bernie!
Grainger tries her hardest with a character the screenwriters so fully believes is unique and "strong" in spite of her character being terrified of water - she apparently just realized she lives near it? - but has no quibbles driving her car on snow-slick streets, crashing it later on.
The film cuts back to the locals on-shore a few times, which ends up leading to scenes where characters who have seemingly lived there for a long time don't understand how storms work. When the power goes out a large group immediately flips out, wondering what's happened.
And let's not forget the hodgepodge of accents, starting with Eric Bana's atrocious Southern twang by way of Queensland, Australia, while the rest of the cast talk like they're auditioning to be the next Torchy Blane.
Perfectly fine - yes, pun intended - for those who enjoy adaptations of real-life events, The Finest Hours struggles when it's not focused on the rescue itself. Establishing character is a challenge for the screenwriters; they overstuff when they shouldn't, and can't think of where to cast their net. By the end we're introduced to a wide swath of people, only a handful of which we care about. Casey Affleck shines the brightest, while Pine tries too hard to underplay his natural charisma. You could do worse in January, but it's doubtful any ripples from this will be left by next month.