If you’re used to Chris Pine playing the brash, over-the-top alpha male in film, you will be surprised at his portrayal of Bernie Webber, a soft-spoken, warm-hearted everyman bent on doing his duty in THE FINEST HOURS. But the portrayal is not unwelcome, and THE FINEST HOURS rises above a tidal wave of 3D action epicness to deliver a story of the heart. It is a love letter to the American Coast Guard.
Since the film is based on true events, you may know how it ends. But even then director Craig Gillespee managed to create an emotional story with a tsunami of tension that builds and builds until the final scene. THE FINEST HOURS is a heroic action-thriller based on the remarkable true story of the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard. On February 18, 1952, a massive nor’easter struck New England, ripping two 500-foot oil tankers in half. Chief Engineer Raymond Sybert (Casey Affleck) must take charge of the frightened tanker crew. Meanwhile the Coast Guard station in Chatham, Massachusetts received word that one of the tankers was in trouble. They send their best men off, leaving coxswain Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) to assemble a ragtag crew (including Ben Foster) in a 36-foot wooden boat to rescue the 2nd tanker’s crew. Miriam (Holliday Grainger), recently engaged to Bernie Webber, remains on shore trying to deal with this life and death situation with the other Chatham residents.
Gillespee takes on three interweaving storylines throughout the film. Two by sea and one on land. When the story jumped to land I occasionally wished it would go back to the epic rescue, but I later realized that because of the love story and all the worried people on land, you are invested in these characters. It helps ground the film in reality and keeps you invested in these characters as they attempt a seemingly suicidal rescue mission in a tiny wooden boat.
One of the most interesting facts the director, Craig Gillespee, mentioned when I spoke with him about the film was that he used the camera and lighting in different ways in water vs. land scenes. Said Craig, “A lot of times the camera was always moving at sea; the camera moves independent of the boats so you really feel that movement going on, and there’s longer takes. And then when we’re on land the cameras are locked off so you feel that security, that beacon home; there’s always warm lights to make it feel inviting. I really tried to keep those worlds separate.” These two integral parts of film-making work on a subconscious level while you watch the film. I found myself shivering and uneasy while watching the water scenes. The effect is fascinating.
I couldn’t help comparing THE FINEST HOURS to TITANIC – both are based on history, involve a sinking ship and are set in frigid waters. I don’t know about you, but while watching Titanic in the theater, I remember feeling so cold. My advice is to bring an extra layer while watching THE FINEST HOURS, because the camera-work and situations the actors portray have that same effect. Another similarity is that this film is a period piece, but set in the 1950’s rather than the turn-of-the-century. Rose Dawson is a strong female for her time, and Miriam (Holliday Grainger) is a strong woman for the 1950’s. Her character is a good match for the quiet Bernie Webber.
The stand out in this film is not the 70-foot waves or the weather that seems like its own character, it is Casey Affleck in his role of a quiet, internal man (Ray). Affleck was fantastic as this calculating engineer who sees the life and death situation he’s in as a puzzle, not a threat. Throughout the swirling waves and raging water of the film, Ray is the calm center who must reluctantly lead 30+ men to keep the sinking tanker afloat.
There are parts of THE FINEST HOURS that I didn’t quite understand, mostly due to the beginning when I wasn’t quite attuned to the Boston accent and sometimes the men speak a little too softly. Some bad blood between Bernie and his Coast Guard co-workers goes over my head on first viewing. Because I was a little “lost at sea,” some of the climactic moments were lost on me. I am a big Chris Pine fan, and if he wasn’t the main character, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed the film as much.
At its core, THE FINEST HOURS brings to life men whose job is to clock in, clock out and save lives. They are simple, and in their simplicity they are heroic. Gillespee has brought to life a small-town story of an epic, huge adventure that affected so many lives. THE FINEST HOURS should make The American Coast Guard, and all our men and women in service, very proud.
Want to know more behind-the-scenes stories of THE FINEST HOURS? Head over to my press junket piece in which I speak with the Director, Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster and Holliday Grainger. There’s bits of knowledge that’s fun to know while watching the film. THE FINEST HOURS arrives in theaters on January 29th.