Sometimes a simple story earnestly told can prove just as effective as the most complex of narratives, and such is the case with Craig Gillespie’s The Finest Hours, a historical drama based on the astonishing true account of the Coast Guard rescue of the crew of the SS Pendleton, an oil tanker that split in two during a fierce storm off the coast of New England in 1952. Gillespie fully embraces well-worn narrative conventions that trumpet common man heroism and romance against the elements, but imbues those conventions, and even occasionally subverts them, with a passionate sense of human nobility and a deft command of cinematography and tone.
From the unfortunate title, a misguided attempt to play on the old cliche, one might expect The Finest Hours to be a paint by the numbers adventure on the open sea. Capable and entertaining, perhaps, but nothing that would linger in the consciousness for long after the credits roll. Such an expectation, however, speaks to a subtle, perhaps unspoken aversion to straightforward, earnest storytelling. Our entertainment desires seem to have become split between the spectacle driven blockbuster franchises that thrive on their own self-evident lunacy on the one hand, and brooding, cynical and darkly humorous works on the other. One group wears the thin veneer of virtue to justify its own absurdity and incoherence, while the other exists only to mock and tear down whatever moral instincts we might cling to as a society. A simple tale of human courage, then, of the human spirit triumphing over incredible odds, appears to have no market (as its paltry $10.3 million opening weekend and tepid critical reviews attest to) in an environment where audiences seem to only be interested in that which distracts from or deconstructs reality.
All this to make the point, primarily, that The Finest Hours is astonishingly refreshing in its simplicity of mind and focus in the same sense that The Revenant is. While Gillespie doesn’t communicate with the rich and brutal symbolism of Alejandro Iñárritu, his focus is essentially the same, though filtered through a distinct artistic lens: the practical and tangible concerns of men and women struggling against both nature and each other.
The Finest Hours concerns itself primarily with two men: Coast Guard crewman Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) and the tanker’s engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), both men of quiet purpose whose character is judged best by their actions rather than words. They’re a refreshing change of pace from the boisterous and dominating action heroes that tend to helm this sort of adventure. Bernie (mumbling all the while in a convincing New England accent) finds himself asked to do the impossible by a novice commanding officer, but his only (and oft-repeated) question is “what do the regulations say?” Ray, facing almost certain death on a tanker split asunder, seems reluctant to contradict his frightened shipmates when they insist on delusional plans to save themselves, but his understated but rational grasp of the physical realities saves the lives of many. The heroism praised in this film is not one of assertive, domineering men, but rather of those who quietly try to do right by their fellow human beings and tend to the problems immediately in front of them.
By focusing on two understated characters thrust into circumstances beyond their own control, Gillespie exercises remarkable restraint that pays dividends in terms of authenticity. We aren’t subjected to laborious exposition about families and girlfriends at home. Rather, Gillespie trusts the early introduction and continuing subplot of Bernie’s engagement to Miriam Webber (Holliday Grainger) to have sufficiently tuned the audience in to the personal stakes (in an endearing romantic twist, Bernie is such a gentle and timid man that Miriam’s proposal of marriage frightens him into initially saying no). This frees the action sequences to focus their propulsive emotional intensity on the immediate concern, staying alive and beating back the forces of nature, while adding far more poignancy to the moments where Gillespie allows the melodrama to naturally flow (aided by a classically romantic score by Carter Burwell).
This focus is magnified in its visceral effect by phenomenal composition work by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe. Aguirresarobe utilizes steady long shots to frame the scale of the nor’easter our characters find themselves trapped within. This is used to particular effect during the initial splitting of the Pendleton, as the rolling seas break apart a powerful technological feat like it was a mere plaything. Shrouded in darkness but partially illuminated by the flickering of both man-made lights and natural lightning, the divided ship becomes a testament to the power of nature and the smallness of man, and in these moments the film deals unabashedly in the sublime. On land as well, the oppressive whiteness of a merciless winter storm is beautifully rendered, and it is here that comparisons to The Revenant become most fitting. While The Finest Hours may impart a level of pure heroism and innocence to its central figures that The Revenant rarely does, both films concern themselves with the physical struggles of men against the harsh realities of the world we inhabit. It’s a simple film, yes, but it’s about as real and earnest a story as you’re apt to see from Hollywood.