Is CG-stacked filmmaking the new studio backlot style? Take a long look at The Finest Hours. It’s a film defined by the most obstructive effects an $80 million production can buy. You’re presented with wholly artificial but terrifyingly bold wide shots of dread-inducing waves and boats in constant danger during a mighty storm. Then to offset the long stuff, there are medium shots of actors on boats with keyed-out blue-screen work, easily detectable and fake-looking, but presented in a curiously acceptable way. This CG one-two is not dissimilar to, say, mixing rear projection on studio sets with shots of miniatures to falsify scale in an old movie. Keep that evolution of process in mind, and The Finest Hours is actually an impressive act of artifice, made with a specifically gee-shucks studio pedigree in mind.
The Finest Hours depicts and dramatizes a Coast Guard rescue from 1952 that happened off the coast of Cape Cod. Two oil tankers, the SS Fort Mercer and the SS Fort Pendleton, were slammed by February winds and waves. It’s curious to think that today this incident would be part of an endless news cycle and quickly dubbed an environmental disaster, but that’s a discussion for a another day. The Finest Hours is a period seafarer filled with Boston-baked heroics, and the Pendleton rescue is retold in tandem.
There’s the story of Boatswains Mate First Class Bernie Webber (Chris Pine, endlessly shy and gosh-darn likeable) and his against-all-odds mission to get to the SS Pendleton. It’s up to decent, selfless men like Bernie and his team of earnest volunteers to do something. It’s a suicide rescue. Bernie’s stuck with what could be called Scruffy the Tugboat. Locals suggest Bernie should just circle the boat around the shore and lie to his superiors. Plus, Bernie’s got a sweetheart that he wants to stay safe for.
Meanwhile, there’s the ripped-in-half Pendleton, full of odd grunts, trying to stay above water while waiting for rescue. This story’s fronted by first assistant engineer Ray Sybart (Casey Affleck, with stringy ‘50s bangs and an airy patience to him), who’s been left to lead after the captain perishes.
From this point, the story’s public record, but that doesn’t lessen the film’s ability to intensify the situation while presenting light surprises (and mixed moments of disbelief). Simply, here’s a Disney “True Story” event film that doesn’t feel all that cheap, emotionally or in terms of presentation. The Finest Hours embraces both new and old.
The state-of-the-art effects are strong, albeit reasonably dim. For a 3D film about watery mayhem in the middle of the blackest of nights, the digitized pummeling of crashing waves is not lost on the viewers. The way water is presented, full of rolling boats and bodies, is often nauseating. That’s a compliment, really! The motion is felt, especially in long shots of Bernie’s boat as it’s beaten by breaks, and it’s a beast to watch.
Meanwhile, the melodrama has such dimples to it. It’s like Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) channeled his inner Michael Curtiz or George Cukor. Foreshadowing and a sense of foreboding for the seas doesn’t act like a predictor for deaths and plot beats, but rather as texture. The script’s gushing with old-school tricks, which could alienate modern sensibilities, but the movie has something pure about it. Romantic lines, sappy dialogue, and one-note characterizations play as homage and not as corn. Bernie’s lover works phone lines and says, “We lost our lights.” Bernie, smiling, says, “You better go find them.” When flirting was cuter…
Now, it’s easy enough to nitpick things like the vastly changing temperatures (heavy snow and warm-looking rain can coexist within 20 miles of each other?). Or the Dolby surround sound assault (and boy does it when the storm hits). Or the imperfect digital work (can no one get blue-screen coloration right anymore?). Yet, The Finest Hours is exactly that. Fine, while embracing its studio aesthetic and morally true heroism.
Tony Soprano used to repeatedly ask, “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper?” It was a request of his cronies to find decency in indecent times. Well, his spirit can be found in The Finest Hours, and he’s now working in a Disney backlot water tank.