One of the great misconceptions in all entertainment is that a good story is paramount. While a good story helps any film, book, or television show, it’s almost always the conveying of the story – the storytelling itself – that makes the difference between a mediocre entertainment and an exceptional one. Particularly in movies, people take the same stories and reboot, remake, and retell them over and over again. Superhero stories are, of course, the most obvious example. A retelling of the same tale can still make hundreds of millions of dollars because people want to see how Marc Webb tells the Spiderman origin story differently from the way Sam Raimi told it.
An inclination to take the core story for granted is the biggest problem with director Craig Gillespie’s The Finest Hours. Although the movie is based on the true story of a heroic 1952 Coast Guard rescue is without a doubt extraordinary, the flawed storytelling diminishes the impact of what could have been a more exciting and moving film.
The basics of the plot are fairly straightforward: Chris Pine plays Bernie Webber, a noble, quiet member of the Coast Guard. In the middle of a blizzard, a rescue call comes in from an oil tanker that’s been split in two by a storm and sinking fast, and Bernie is one of the only guys around to go out for the rescue. Despite being told an excessive number of times that it’s a suicide mission, he leaves his fiancée Miriam (Holliday Granger) and goes with a small crew out into the storm. The action pivots from the Coast Guard team to the tanker, where cranky genius crewman Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) is working to keep the ship afloat for as long as possible, and back to the shore, where Miriam and the townspeople are dealing with the baggage associated with a failed rescue the year before.
All of the pieces are there for The Finest Hours to be as exciting and engaging as the true story deserves, but the balance in maneuvering those pieces is never quite right. Particularly in the screenplay, we get hit over the head with certain elements – certain death awaits both the Coast Guard team and the tanker crew OMG – while other factors remain confusing and obscure. I still have no idea what Sybert was doing to keep the tanker afloat, though I could get a pretty good sense for whether it was working by the expressions on the crew’s faces as they looked at a variety of ominous dials and chains.
Gillespie, whose highest profile projects include Lars and the Real Girl and United States of Tara, lacks experience in dealing with the many moving parts of a big special effects blockbuster, and he seems to focus on the big budget parts here at the expense of the smaller details. The special effects are mostly good, and one scene in which the Coast Guard team is battling unimaginable waves is particularly memorable. But in all of the focus on building the drama, everyone apparently forgot that all of these people, who are soaking wet in the middle of a storm in February off the coast of Massachusetts, would probably be pretty cold; no one shivers until about five minutes before the credits roll.
Despite not getting the telling that this story deserves, The Finest Hours is a perfectly serviceable action adventure alternative to all of the Oscar nominees currently screening more widely. If you go, just sit quietly with your popcorn, let the score and lack of subtlety wash over you like so many 3D waves, and try not to wonder how someone who has been completely submerged half a dozen times in a tempestuous sea manages to still be wearing a hat.