Film review: VFX can’t save ‘The Finest Hours’ from sinking

Feb. 1, 2016, 12:55 a.m.

Based on a true story, “The Finest Hours” purports to be a dramatic portrayal of one of the Coast Guard’s most epic rescue missions. It also seems to have all the necessary elements of a large-scale adventure tale, but that’s also the problem. There’s the dependable sailor looking for redemption, his ever-devoted girlfriend and a ship full of sailors in need of rescue. “The Finest Hours” uses impressive special effects to conjure a brutal storm in the background, but the human story in the foreground is lifeless.

Chris Pine leads the cast as Bernie Webber, a dependable and soft-spoken Coast Guard sailor who has something to prove after a failed rescue mission, which the other characters can’t stop mentioning. The opening of the film is actually one of its strongest sequences, as Bernie meets his fiancée Miriam (Holliday Grainger) and we follow their brief courtship before he is selected to lead the rescue mission. This rescue mission takes him, not shockingly, over the same sandbar that he confronted during the failed mission.

It’s clear that Miriam is intended to be an independent woman. This is the ’50s, but she marches down to the Coast Guard station to personally request that the Captain call Bernie back in from his mission. She is told that none other women do this, but she remains adamant. Unfortunately, her complete devotion to her fiancé is her only character trait. She has a job as a telephone operator but is only shown using this position to call Bernie at the station. This obvious attempt at creating a strong female character is not genuine. The era as a whole is idealized to a ridiculous degree, with quaint diners, strangers helping each other in the snow and the entire town seemingly engaged in Bernie’s rescue mission.

The film repeatedly cuts between Bernie’s progress and the crew stranded on a sinking oil tanker. This repetition means that even the rhythm of the film isn’t particularly engaging. There’s the predictable interpersonal conflict among the men onboard the tanker as they decide on a course of action, but for the most part, the stranded crew members are perpetually trying to buy themselves more time onboard. The result is several shots of the men working below deck to steer or patch cracks in the hull. This is when the film drags. It feels distinctly like watching the sinking scenes in “Titanic” — but for two hours.

As for Webber, as a character he is notable primarily for his sincerity and for Chris Pine’s Boston accent. He demonstrates his respect for rules and authority on numerous occasions and doesn’t seem to have much of a personality beyond his earnestness and skill behind the wheel of a boat. This might be doing justice to the characterization of the real Bernie Webber, but it doesn’t make for a particularly dynamic performance from Pine.

The special effects used to create the storm and ocean are perhaps the most impressive feat that “The Finest Hours” is able to achieve. The visuals themselves are much more engaging than the plot or the pacing. Overall, the film presents its viewers with few surprises beyond some particularly incredible waves. The magnitude of nature’s power is staggering, but the human narrative is entirely predictable, and Mother Nature can’t carry this film on her own.


Contact Reed Canaan rcanaan ‘at’

Reed Canaan is a sophomore at Stanford and a critic for the Stanford Daily. While currently undecided as to her major, Reed is passionate about the humanities and any class that incorporates film. Originally from Richmond, Virginia, she has spent many years determining which theaters don’t ID for R-rated movies. She loves dark comedy, sarcasm, and ice cream.

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