Hollywood loves to toss around the phrase “based on a true story.” The problem is that it’s often difficult to tell where the truth ends and the fabrication to build suspense and drama begins. Sometimes the essence of the story gets overpowered by melodrama
In the case of “The Finest Hours,” modifications were necessary. While the actual story is an amazing tale of courage, in the end, the process proves a little too mechanical to hold the attention of an audience. The changes help but there are still a few leaks.
The rescue of 32 men from an oil tanker broken in half by a monster storm in 1952 is considered one of the most heroic missions in Coast Guard history. Accounts of the efforts of the four men manning the small rescue boat became the fodder for the non-fiction book of the same name by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias.
Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson took that book and added some embellishments to create the script. Instead of being a rather typical story of a sea rescue, the changes result in the audience getting hit by wave after wave of emotions.
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“The Finest Hours” is made up of two stories on a collision course.
The first starts at sea: The crew of the SS Pendelton find themselves stranded on the back half of a ship after the front is ripped off by a storm off the New England coast. The senior officer, chief engineer Raymond Sybert (Casey Affleck), and remaining crew try to keep the disabled vessel afloat until a rescue party can find them. It’s a powerful story of men caught in the grips of fear grasping for any small chance they can muster.
Their efforts are hampered by a split in the crew, a lack of trust for the man in charge and the relentless storm that looks to consume them. As long as the movie focuses on them, it is engaging. It slows it focuses on the mechanics of saving the ship.
The other half of the story begins on shore. Coxswain Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) is in the throws of his pending engagement to Miriam (Holliday Grainger). Before he can get the nod from his commander (Eric Bana) to marry, he and his team are sent from the Coast Guard station in Chatham, Massachusetts on a 36-foot motorized, wooden boat to save the Pendleton crew.
To get there, the small boat must face hurricane-force winds, 60-foot waves, frigid temperatures and zero visibility. Had director Craig Gillespie merely focused on the battle with the sea, the movie wouldn’t have been as strong. All of the emotional elements are cranked up through the anguish and fears Miriam faces as she waits for word.
Pine brings a Gary Cooper-type quality to the role by leading with a quiet power (a strong contrast to his broad work on “Star Trek”). He’s believable as a man driven by his devotion to duty and his love for the woman he left on shore.
The movie gets a little wobbly with the other supporting players.
Bana has little more to do than bark a few orders. Ben Foster is reduced to a few nods and grunts. Both actors are capable of deeper performances but have little room to shine in a film that sets the characters played by Affleck and Pine as the central heroes.
Of course Affleck and Pine are up to the challenge. It’s only when they finally get together that the movie lets up on the emotion and everything coasts to a predictable ending. It is OK to know where a project is going as long as the journey is satisfying and “The Finest Hours” provides just enough added tension to keep the film interesting.
There have been some big leaps made from the real story to the film script (such as Bernie and Miriam already being married before the rescue mission). That’s why Hollywood uses the phrase “based on” so that it can amplify the story as needed. It’s a valiant effort, but it never fully rescues the film.