Imagine: You live in a tiny fishing village on the coast of Cape Cod in 1952. It's a stormy winter night and you've driven down to the docks along with some other neighbors. A small boat of local Coast Guard men are trying to rescue the survivors of a sinking freighter. It's pitch black and the boat has no compass. The power just went out around the dock. So what do you do?
The answer, of course, is that you do nothing. You just stand there, until a local girl who is new to the dock scene turns her car lights on. After a few moments, you realize that shining lights toward the sea just might be a good idea. So you and your neighbors race to your vehicles, while someone shouts, “Turn your car lights on … like the girl!”
I planned to write about the Live-Action and Animated Oscar Nominated Short Films this week, but after witnessing the new girl teach the well-seasoned marina crowd about the wonders of light, I knew that this space was destined for The Finest Hours. NOTE: I'll cover the live-action and short film packages next week. In the meantime, both collections can be seen at Landmark Keystone Art Cinema.
It's only fair to admit that I'm a sucker for movies like The Finest Hours. Rescues at sea, New England accents, maritime clichés … what's not to love? The film is based on the book, The Finest Hours: The True Story of the Coast Guard's Most Daring Sea Rescue, by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman. How much of the true story is reflected in Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson's screenplay? We'll know in a week or so, when the locals get a chance to compare history with cinema.
One thing's for sure: the men in the movie certainly watch their language. No surprise – the movie opens with the Disney logo, including the castle. But never mind, the men do their best to make up for their cleaned-up speech with lots of growling and hollering.
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Our two leading men are Coast Guard coxswain Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) and tanker engineer Raymond Sybert (Casey Affleck). Both fellows reflect the “Greatest Generation” vibe connected to the time period. Sybert remains a man of few words, while Webber gets both a backstory (he once led a failed rescue mission) and a love interest – plucky Miriam (Holliday Grainger), the aforementioned woman who discovered light.
On the fateful February night a nor'easter shears two separate oil tankers in half. The confusion over the twin disasters results in one receiving the lion's share of the rescue efforts. With the more experienced men already gone, the new Coast Guard commanding officer, Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana, trying hard) orders Webber to lead a crew to attempt a rescue of the second boat.
Webber's crew includes actors Kyle Gallner, John Magaro and the chameleon-like Ben Foster, who at some points in the film passes a striking resemblance to Popeye. Sybert's boatmates include a number of swell character actors, including Abe Benrubi, who makes the most of his time (he even gets to work in a show tune). Nice to see Abe again.
Director Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm) is all over the place in the adventure tale. Some scenes work perfectly, like the one that follows a crucial command as it is passed from man to man (if you ever played the game “Telephone” you'll be extra nervous), while other scenes, like the headlight business, are simply embarrassing.
The effects are uneven. The action scenes work as long as you don't look too closely. You hear warnings of deadly hypothermia bandied about the sinking ship while the Coast Guard men boating through the same waters don't even look uncomfortable. Some of the computer-generated ocean scenes are stunning – meanwhile the snow on the windshields of the cars looks like insulation … or mashed potato buds.
What makes the film so gripping is the unlikeliness of the crucial situation. The freighter makes a desperate move that shouldn't work. The Coast Guard team stabs repeatedly into the dark seas without real direction. This couldn't possibly succeed, but …
The men in The Finest Hour make mistakes. The director of the film does so too. In the end it worked for me, but then I'm a sucker for this stuff.