It is no secret that I fancy myself a fan of director Craig Gillespie, an under-the-radar filmmaker who has steadily shown himself to be a filmmaker in the truest sense of the word. While many filmmakers find one thing they are good at and milk it for everything it's worth, Gillespie has slowly built himself a reputation for tackling a wide variety of projects beginning with the relatively lowbrow comedy Mr. Woodcock and followed that same year by the extraordinary Lars and the Real Girl. He's followed it up with a Fright Night remake, Disney's Million Dollar Arm, and this return to the Disney fold, The Finest Hours, a retro-styled tale of unfathomable heroism that is so loyal to the required sense of tone and style that such artistic integrity may very well make it a difficult film to sell.
That's Craig Gillespie for you.
The Finest Hours isn't a perfect film. In fact, I've yet to embrace a Gillespie film as much as I embraced 2007's Lars and the Real Girl, a film that made my Top 10 list that year and likely remains in my Top 10 for the past 10 years. Yet, The Finest Hours is a good film and it's a far better film than most film critics are going to tell you. It's a film brimming to the top with artistic integrity and discipline and style and substance and a retro-styled "Wow!" factor that we seldom see in cinema these days. It possesses everything I loved about film when I was growing up and had me remembering back to the first time I watched The Poseidon Adventure, the original and not that godawful remake, a film that seems antiquated by today's technology standards yet a film that was captivating and true and powerful.
The Finest Hours tells a fictionalized version of the true story of the greatest small boat rescue in U.S. Coast Guard history. Presented in Digital 3D and IMAX 3D, The Finest Hours begins on February 18, 1952 as a massive nor'easter strikes the New England area and wreaks havoc upon the towns and ships in its path including the SS Pendleton, a T-2 oil tanker bound for Boston that is, quite literally, ripped in half trapping 34 sailors inside its stern. With the ship rapidly sinking, Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), the ship's highest ranking officer, endeavors to inspire the men to work cooperatively and fight for survival. Meanwhile, on dry land in nearby Chatham, the U.S. Coast Guard becomes aware of the ship's plight and Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana) orders the almost unfathomable rescue mission. Facing unimaginable odds and obstacles, Captain Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) leads a crew of four men aboard a wooden lifeboat with poor navigational equipment and an even more questionable engine and attempts the impossible.
While the film runs nearly a full two hours, The Finest Hours is a well-paced action flick vastly superior to that usually found in the January cinematic dumping ground despite the film's occasionally clunky dialogue and the film's mostly ineffective more fictionalized story threads. Gillespie nicely balances the film's story between the Pendleton's crew and the more personalized stories of Webber and his men including Andy Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner), Richard Livesey (Ben Foster) and Ervin Maske (John Magaro). The film, absolutely riveting amidst the storm and the harrowing sequences of man vs. nature, feels hokey and contrived upon dry land. This is especially true in the fictionalized sections involving Bernie's Fiancee, Miriam (Holliday Grainger), whose grating presence might explain why Bernie was so willing to tackle the impossible task to begin with.
While Gillespie seems to have a knack for balancing artistic integrity with creating a film under the Disney marquee, it's that Disney marquee that ultimately gets in the way of The Finest Hours, a film that possesses a story with so much inherent drama and emotional depth that it feels unnatural when Carter Burwell's overly thunderous original score wants us to feel even more and when clearly fictionalized scenes seek to create an emotional resonance that is unnecessary and overwrought. Trust me, this ain't Gillespie talkin'. That's Disney saying "Do this."
This Chris Pine performance is a Chris Pine you haven't really seen before and it may take a few moments to adjust. Give it time. Pine gives the film a needed emotional honesty and likability, while Casey Affleck adds a gravitas and inspiration that works beautifully parallel to Pine's performance.
Gillespie proves once again that he's a filmmaker's filmmaker. He takes an okay script and brings it to life with action sequences that will bring to mind the equally harrowing yet differently toned The Perfect Storm. Maintaining true to his vision, Gillespie has created a film that inspires and awes and leaves you riveted for nearly its entire two hour running time even when you're being subjected to story threads that add nothing to the film.
The Finest Hours is mighty fine indeed.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic