“They say you gotta go out. They don’t say you gotta come back in.”
2016 seems to very quickly be becoming the year of the ensemble piece. With Spotlight picking up the Academy award for Best Picture and a whole host of other great pieces coming forward, such as Hail, Caesar! and, of course, all the superhero movies coming our way (Batman vs. Superman, Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse being just a few), the biggest releases this year seem to be weighed heavily away from straight leading actors in favour of complexly woven stories with multiple stars working it through.
When I sat down to watch Disney’s The Finest Hours, I was expecting something very similar. The screenplay is adapted from The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman; the story of how, in 1952, the US Coast Guard launched a rescue out of Chatham, Massachusetts on the SS Pendleton; a T2 oil tanker which was split in half by one of the most vicious storms on record. The rest of the coastguard crews nearby had already been sent to an almost identical rescue on the SS Fort Mercer, including the majority of the crew from Chatham station – leaving only three men with one small boat to try and rescue the Pendelton’s crew.
On the surface, The Finest Hours looked to be another ensemble piece, with a host of talented young actors taking important roles both on the stricken Pendelton and in the Chatham Coast Guard, working together under the leadership of Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck, Interstellar, Triple 9) and Bernie Webber (Chris Pine, Into The Woods, Star Trek) respectively. However, as the film progresses it becomes very clear that these two are the leads of this piece, and everyone else is there to support – which is not necessarily to the films’ benefit. Splitting the story between the two viewpoints is detrimental to the character development of both Sybert and Webber, resulting in a pair of heroes who don’t feel fully fleshed out by the time the film’s climax arrives; though this is certainly not the fault of Affleck and Pine.
Between the two, Webber is arguably the main focus of the piece, and Pine shines in the part, delivering one of the most rounded performances which I have ever seen from him. Webber is a shy, gentle man with an obvious lack of personal confidence; but he is also a stickler for the rules and is determined to do the best he can. Pine portrays this tremendously, lending real weight to the conflict within as he battles with his sense of duty over his basic instinct to survive. As he comes to terms with what the very real chance he won’t return from the rescue, the strength of Pine’s performance grows. Webber takes more and more of a strong leadership position with his crew as they continue to doubt the sanity of the attempt, and Pine’s transformation of Webber from quiet, reflective man of duty into a determined leader is at the heart of the film.
The primary, and almost sole, female influence comes from Miriam Pentinen (Holliday Grainger, The Borgias, Cinderella), Webber’s fiancée, who counter-balances Webber with an incredible sense of self, displaying a level of confidence and spirit that would still have been seen by many as unusual during the 1950’s. Her concern for her fiancée as he is sent out on the rescue mission works beautifully alongside Webber’s own self-doubt as to his ability; fueled by a failed rescue attempt under similar conditions the previous year, as both characters attempt to come to terms with the very real chance that Webber may not return from his mission.
Sadly, despite a strong showing from Grainger, Pentinen’s own story goes the same way as that of Webber and Sybert; with too little time being given to allow for a full realisation of the emotional distress she has been placed under. Her journey after Webber’s departure conveniently leads her to chance interactions with those directly affected from Webber’s failed rescue the year before, in a way which feels too contrived as a plot-device for it to have an effective impact on the portrayal of her own worries and fears. She is left on the shore of the story, while the drama continues to build out in the Atlantic, and the importance of her role diminishes exponentially as the film continues.
On the Pendelton, Affleck’s Sybert has a different set of challenges to overcome, but his story reflects that of Webber. When the Pendelton is severed, the bridge is separated from the engine room; and as chief engineer aboard, Sybert reluctantly assumes command of his half of the vessel. Sybert is not well liked by the rest of the crew, bar a few of the other workers in the engine room, and struggles to assert himself in this position. The rest of the crew take heed of his advice primarily due to his expert knowledge of the workings of the ship, and a number of inventive ideas and quick reactions keep their half of the Pendelton afloat while they await possible rescue. Like with Webber and Pentinen, not enough time is given to the events on the Pendelton to allow Affleck to fully get his teeth into the role, and the rise of Sybert amongst the rest of the crew feels circumstantial and incomplete by the films’ end.
It’s important to note that this film does not seem to intend to be a realistic telling of the true story behind this rescue. Disney throws everything it has at its post-production graphics team to create landscapes and scenery designed to stun the audience, especially with the shots of the two boats at sea; huge, crashing waves and punishing storms are realised through extensive use of CGI. This does not help in terms of realism, especially with the coast guard; with their rescue boat being fully submerged beneath the towering waves, without anything detrimental happening to its crew, or to the engine (bar one exception when the engine room is flooded; but never again). While this creates a visually striking piece of cinema, something which certainly entertains and leaves in awe in the moment, upon leaving the cinema I found myself reflecting on the unrealistic feel of it all. At one point, the coast guard crew smash their boat head-first through a 40 foot wave… and the worst thing that happens is that one of the crew loses his hat. It was a ridiculous moment that, in the moment, was amusing – but after felt ironically shallow as a moment in film.
The supporting cast is strong, but as with the leads, does not receive a chance to truly portray themselves as anything more than caricatures alongside their leads – in the coast guards, there is The Grumpy One, The Enthusiastic One, and The Inexperienced One; and we find very little more out than that. Eric Bana (Star Trek, Munich) puts in a wonderful turn as Daniel Cluff, the commander of the coast guard station, who appears clueless as to the dangers the team will face; and provides the moment of the highest drama in the film (that doesn’t involve a CGI wave) during an angry exchange with Pentinen after the crew have been dispatched.
All in all, The Finest Hours is an entertaining film, but is woven with issues and complexities. Taking away from some of the supporting stories around the wreck and focusing more on Webber and/or Sybert could have benefited the film from a story-telling point of view; but if you’re looking for something that will let you disengage from the world for a couple of hours, then you could do worse than watch The Finest Hours.
This review was originally published by The Grade in 2016.