In 1952, off the coast of Chatham, Massachusetts, US, the SS Pendleton was split in half by a terrible storm. The ship’s bow sunk and eight people, including the captain, drowned. Miraculously, the stern stayed afloat and was steered to a sandbar, where the crew waited for help. Even more miraculously, considering the severity of the storm, help was on its way, in the form a four-member coastguard crew headed by one Bernard Webber. They saved the lives of 32 crewmen, and the event is regarded as one of the finest small-boat rescues in coastguard history.
This rescue is now on screen in the form of The Finest Hours, an exercise in stoic, square-jawed film-making. Time and again, someone points out how bad the storm is, how suicidal the mission seems, only to get a stubbornly heroic response from Webber (Chris Pine, stoic like Gary Cooper), quoting the unofficial motto of the coastguard: “They say you gotta go out.” Almost as tight-lipped and duty-bound is Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck, stoic like Steve McQueen), who takes charge of the Pendleton after it splits, navigating it to a sandbar with the help of a largely sceptical crew.
Most directors would have begun this film with the Pendleton splitting in two, but Craig Gillespie chooses to linger over the sweet but seemingly insignificant episode of Webber out on a blind date with Miriam (Holliday Grainger), his future wife. It’s an atypical start, but a canny one: It tells us how duty-bound Webber can be (before they get the distress call, he’s fretting over asking his superior officer for leave for his own wedding day), as well as how uncomfortable he is on land, interacting with people. It makes it easy for us to understand his ease on his boat, navigating mountainous waves without a compass.
This is meat-and-potatoes film-making, but if you aren’t averse to a lot of scenes with tough guys gritting their teeth, The Finest Hours is a reasonably engaging 120-odd minutes. The towering, roiling waves look pretty much like the VFX that they are, but the snowstorm that hits the land is unbelievably beautiful. While Pine and Affleck are reticent to the point of being almost closed off to the audience, Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner and John Magaro are very good as Webber’s crew. Carter Burwell’s music is as sweeping and warm as you would expect from a Disney film on a maritime rescue mission.
This review appeared in Mint.