Director Craig Gillespie seems to be shaping up as Disney’s current go-to guy to direct feel-good stories of true story triumphs in the face of adversity, a staple of their live-action stable of films produced for the apparent sole purpose of giving high school teachers an excuse to provide their students with a distraction under the pretense of educational value. The Finest Hours fits this mold pretty precisely, and much like Gillespie’s previous film, Million Dollar Arm, the film is competent, yet unlikely to leave much of a lasting impression once the credits start rolling.
Set on and off the coast of Cape Cod in 1952, The Finest Hours opens on the romantic entanglement and eventual engagement of Bernie (Chris Pine, as wooden as his namesake), a coastguardsman, and Miriam (Holliday Grainger), a "strong female character" who makes up for lack of agency with a pointless amount of screentime. When an immense storm tears an oil tanker in half just off the coast, Bernie is sent to retrieve the crewmen of the ship and leave his fiancée behind for what appears to be a suicide mission. Meanwhile, the crew of the tanker, led by the ship’s chief engineer (Casey Affleck, as forgettable as ever), fights to survive as the remains of the ship slowly submerge.
The film’s biggest problem is that it tries to split its running time evenly between the two plots, except without proper proportional investment given to either side. Gillespie seems to want the Bernie/Miriam romance to be the emotional center of the film, yet the two aren’t much further developed that stock archetypes, and watching Bernie struggle against waves in his rescue boat starts to wear thin after watching it for nearly the entire last hour of the film. Conversely, the more interesting action takes place on the sinking tanker, yet none of the characters on that ship are invested with much, if any, distinguishing characteristics, making them hard to care about or relate to. This makes the two hour runtime of the film drag on interminably, since the film doesn’t place its emotional investment where it matters.
Yet, despite my glib commentary on the actors, their performances are actually decently serviceable given the trite circumstances of the script and their characterization in it. They’re all eminently watchable and the production values of the film are on par with just about any natural disaster flick of recent memory, with computer generated waves bringing a functional level of distress to the table. But ultimately, this is a bland piece of January theater fodder, a film that Disney produced and likely regretted once it saw the final product, and given their usual high standards for their output, this merely functions as a tedious distraction. If you’re looking for a bare minimum of watchability, The Finest Hours serves that function, because nothing about it is blatantly awful; it’s just that nothing about it is particularly good either.