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May 2, 2017

The Finest Hours

by Franz Patrick


Finest Hours, The (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Craig Gillespie’s “The Finest Hours” depicts an exciting, suspenseful, and seemingly impossible rescue mission that is based on actual events that took place in 1952. It works because it is interested in specific details of the jobs at hand—both from the U.S. Coast Guard perspective and the men stuck on a sinking ship during a terrible storm.

The screenplay by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson ensures that we understand the tasks at hand. Notice that when something needs to be explained because many of the viewers are likely to be unfamiliar when it comes to the particulars of rescue efforts and keeping an oil tanker afloat, vivid dialogue is employed coupled with a relatively calm background. It takes its time so that we are able to construct images in our heads.

Our expectations are slowly developed—and either upended when things go horribly awry or a sigh of relief fills the air when something goes right eventually. There is an efficient balancing act between action-thriller sequences, particularly of a small motor lifeboat led by a crewman named Bernard “Bernie” Webber (Chris Pine) that must make it past a barrier of enormous waves, and its dramatic core. We are reminded constantly that the characters on screen are real humans who are flawed, fragile, and determined.

I also appreciated the details of how the environment takes its toll on its subjects. For instance, inside of the oil tanker that had been split in two, we notice the increasing level of fatigue of and amongst men from having to work for many hours straight not only in order to keep the ship afloat but also to steer it in the right direction and be on the lookout for rescue. Their energy is inversely related to the rate of the ocean water swallowing them whole.

Casey Affleck plays Ray Sybert, the SS Pendleton’s engineer whose first task is to convince about half of the crew that taking the lifeboats as a means of survival is a bad idea. There is a growing but subtle weariness to his performance that I found compelling. We understand that he does not see himself as a leader but one who is forced to lead nonetheless because the others do not know as much as he knows. He has doubts in himself and it does not help that a few others have doubts about him, too.

“The Finest Hours” is likely to be criticized for embracing a more traditional approach of showing a rescue mission. While the picture is not adventurous in terms of form or structure, it is nonetheless comparable to those considered to be superior films within the sub-genre because it is constantly grounded in reality, it presents many specific details of what a certain occupation entails, and there is increasing level of anticipation throughout. It is not simply about getting from Point A to Point B. It is concerned with the process.

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