A square journey through choppy waters, The Finest Hours boasts a Greatest Generation nostalgia so thoroughgoing it might as well be called Boys Becoming Men. The film recreates the Coast Guard rescue of the sinking oil tanker Pendleton off of the Massachusetts coast in the winter of 1952, but it begins the year before, with a lengthy prologue documenting the romantic and professional anxieties of Coast Guard sailor Bernie Webber (Chris Pine). He frets over whether his blind date will be a “dog” before becoming enchanted with Miriam (Holliday Grainger), a sharp and steely telephone operator. Their town, Wellfleet, is home to quaint rituals: Saturday-night church dances and late-night boat rides mark their courtship. After Miriam proposes to Bernie, disrupting his complacency and his sense of order, an impending winter storm offers him an opportunity to claim his manhood.
Even after the film splits off into a tripartite narrative structure, it’s roundly concerned with living up to hazy masculine ideals: follow the rules, but break them when you need to; be a team player, except when you need to be a leader. Once Webber is called to save the Pendleton, he must steer his tiny rescue ship over the roiling breaks that waylaid him on a previous, vaguely defined mission. Aboard the oil tanker, engineer Raymond Sebert (Casey Affleck) must defy the scorn of his peers and devise a few ingenious solutions in order to keep his torn ship afloat until help arrives. Back on Cape Cod, Miriam has to assert herself in traditionally male confines in order to confirm the safety of her fiancé. (Her efforts are diminished, with unintentional hilarity, after she crashes her car into a snowdrift.)
These rote thematic missions are complemented by episodic cross-cutting that’s largely task-oriented in nature. Director Craig Gillespie develops the action with steady pacing and minimal exposition. The film’s color palette is similarly reserved, all varying hues of slate (even Pine and Affleck’s gray eyes match the churning sea and their drab uniforms). And most of the scant hints of aesthetic flair are welcome and purposeful.
In one tracking shot, the camera moves from the dock of the Pendleton to its engine room, following a string of sailors as they relay steering coordinates to Sebert, who pilots the ship from its flooding bowels. Scraps of sunset tearing through storm clouds provide Webber’s four-man rescue crew with a sense of direction and some lovely lighting. CGI effects are largely employed to illustrate the mammoth scale of Webber’s mission, contrasting his 34-foot lifeboat with a hulking tanker that has split in half. The only overwrought notes in the film come courtesy of composer Carter Burwell, whose score oversells The Finest Hours’s determinedly small-town heroism.
Relatively surefooted at sea, The Finest Hours founders back on land. There’s no salt in the air of Wellfleet, where the wives are grimly prepared for disaster, and the husbands are soft-spoken and indistinct. Screenwriters Scott Silver, Paul Tamsay, and Eric Johnson (who previously collaborated on David O. Russell’s The Fighter, which had such fun with its insular confines) sketch their ancillary characters with a tenderhearted blandness. The main characters are similarly one-dimensional, though they’re distinguished by a determination that’s unremittingly humorless and taciturn.
Affleck, who has mastered the vagaries of imperiled masculinity in films as diverse as Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace and Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, is tightly coiled and vacuumed of ambiguity. Pine, who at his best seems both amused and baffled by his own charisma, is similarly stifled by the dictates of this wholesome, wholly conservative entertainment. However agreeably and efficiently it functions as an action film, The Finest Hours is persistently undermined by its robotic, unquestioning humanity.