Hours isn’t based on a true story, but it makes a considerable effort to convince us that it could have been. Set in New Orleans on the day Hurricane Katrina hit, the film confines itself to a hospital where a young father, Nolan (Paul Walker), is left stranded as the city descends into chaos. The rest of the hospital is evacuated as the storm increases in intensity, but Nolan stays behind with his hours-old daughter because the ventilator keeping her alive isn’t portable.
Once the hospital is abandoned, the flickering fluorescent lights, the equipment strewn across the hallways, and the eventual threat of armed looters give the film an anarchic, post-apocalyptic feel. Considering what we know about the state of New Orleans in the days after Katrina, Hours doesn’t demand too much suspension of disbelief in that sense, but director Eric Heisserer still feels compelled to underscore his story’s adherence to the facts. When Nolan goes to the roof of the hospital to try to flag down a rescue helicopter and people at a nearby building start shooting at the chopper to get the pilot’s attention, Heisserer almost immediately shows us a real CNN news report from 2005 about how sniper fire at a N’awlins hospital halted a rescue operation.
The notion that conferring a film with true-story status increases its emotional impact is a faulty premise in the best of cases. Just as often, the weight of history unnecessarily constrains movies that have a lot more going for them than their truth value. In the case of Hours, the fealty to history is both unnecessary and a hindrance, pulling us out of a story that could have easily been set in an anonymous city hit by a nondescript hurricane. The news footage showing a flooded New Orleans continuously reminds us of the real horror stories of survival and suffering that took place in the city following the storm, and this makes Nolan’s story feel contrived; in a different context, it may have passed muster.
It doesn’t help that Hours is also remarkably tranquil for a thriller. Nolan spends much of his time by his daughter’s side, repeatedly winding up the battery that provides her ventilator with three minutes of power at a time and all the while telling her about Abigail (Genesis Rodriguez), her mother, who died after giving birth. From there the movie indulges in a series of flashbacks, even featuring an appearance by Abigail’s ghostly apparition, but the hollow dialogue in these scenes means they only come off as filler. It’s true that Nolan must struggle to keep the baby alive (by fighting to keep the power on and searching for new IV fluid containers), so the stakes are high in that sense. And perhaps the film’s stately pace is another part of its attempt at realism, meant to show how waiting for rescue comes with the mundane effort of passing time. The latter idea is compelling in thought. Unfortunately, a thrilling drama it doesn’t make, particularly when we know that, somewhere else in New Orleans, more compelling stories are taking place.