[Screen It]


(2016) (Chris Pine, Casey Affleck) (PG-13)

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Drama/Action: A small Coast Guard crew must make their way through a nor'easter in hopes of rescuing those on a damaged and sinking tanker.
It's February 1952 and a raging nor'easter is at full force off the coast of Massachusetts. In the middle of that are two WWII era T2 tankers, the SS Pendleton and SS Fort Mercer. Due to their rushed construction during the war, including the use of substandard steel, the ships are unable to withstand the punishment and both split apart in different parts of the Atlantic.

Onboard the Pendleton, engineer Ray Sybert (CASEY AFFLECK) has become the de facto captain, what with the previous crew now being lost at sea, and he does what he can to keep the stern half afloat. That conflicts with some crewmen who want to lower the lifeboats and try to row back to shore, something Ray knows would be certain suicide.

Back in the town of Wellfleet, Boatswain's Mate 1st Class Bernie Webber (CHRIS PINE) is hoping to ask his Coast Guard captain, Daniel Cluff (ERIC BANA), permission to marry his sweetheart, local switchboard operator Miriam (HOLLIDAY GRAINGER). It's just a formality, but Bernie is a rule follower, although Cluff has no time for that, what with receiving news of the Pendleton's condition. Despite the warnings of everyone else that sending a crew out into the raging sea could be deadly dangerous, Cluff has no choice but to assign Bernie to head up a four man crew to attempt a rescue.

While his best friend, Mel "Gus" Gouthro (BEAU KNAPP), is too sick for the trip, Bernie is joined by Andy Fitzgerald (KYLE GALLNER), Richard Livesey (BEN FOSTER) and newcomer Ervin Maske (JOHN MAGARO) and they set out on a 36-foot lifeboat designed to hold only 12 people. As they make their way through the treacherous seas, including gargantuan waves crossing over the break line, they must contend with the dangerous conditions, losing their compass, and discovering that the Pendleton has far more crewmembers than their small lifeboat is designed to carry.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
Long ago when I worked for the U.S. Senate, I had a coworker who told me an amazing story about his life. Not only was he abducted in the middle of the night (at the age of 14) to fight in Cambodia following the fall of Saigon, but he eventually went AWOL, returned home, gathered up his younger siblings and set sail for refuge in Hong Kong. Beyond running out of food and water, they also had to contend with going through a typhoon where he said they half sank the boat in hopes that the thirty-plus foot waves wouldn't completely capsize them. They obviously made it, but his tale completely captivated me, especially in comparison to my growing up being akin to an episode of "Leave it to Beaver."

As much as that harrowing account hooked me, my reaction and experience, if you will, of that past event obviously wasn't even close to the real thing. I could imagine what it was like, but that's it. Filmmakers, on the other hand, have lots of tools at their disposal to help recreate such real life experiences in a "you are there" fashion. While regular films don't have the 4D immersive experience of adding motion, weather effects and more to watching the tale, they do have special effects crews, screenwriters, and performers to yank us into the story and take us for the ride of our lives, at least until the end credits roll.

You've probably experienced such movies where your muscles end up sore the next day from being so tense, or you end up sweaty in the moment of watching what transpires. That happened to me while watching "The Walk," the tale of Philippe Petit walking across a high wire suspended between the two towers of the World Trade Center. I don't think I've ever been that sweaty watching a movie outside of when the air conditioner in some theater wasn't working in the summer.

Alas, it didn't happen to me while sitting through "The Finest Hours." It's the big screen adaptation of Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman's novel, "The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard's Most Daring Sea Rescue," the recounting of the true life heroics involved in the saving of the crew of the SS Pendleton in 1952 off the coast of Massachusetts during a raging nor'easter. And one of the film's signature moments is a sequence where a four-man crew must make their way across the break line out into the open seas. In a thirty-some foot boat. Facing monster waves straight out of a disaster movie featuring tidal waves.

Considering how I reacted to my friend's story of going through similarly massive waves in a tiny boat, you'd think I'd have the same reaction, especially with the added benefit of seeing what transpires rather than simply hearing the oral only version. Yet, while those moments are visually compelling, something just feels off about the film, as if it's stuck in a lower gear for most of the nearly two-hour runtime.

Yes, there are lots of perilous moments as director Craig Gillespie -- working from Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson's screenplay adaptation -- goes back and forth, once the main plot kicks in, between three settings. First, there's what's occurring on the Pendleton as its chief engineer (Casey Affleck) does what he can to keep the severed stern afloat.

The second involves Chris Pine (playing more human than his Captain Kirk bravado in the "Star Trek" films) piloting a 36-foot lifeboat with three crewman (played by Kyle Gallner, Ben Foster and John Magaro) through tidal wave sized mountains of water to get out into the stormy seas for the rescue attempt. And back on shore is his fiancée (Holliday Grainger, looking as if she's been pulled straight out of a film from that era) worrying about him, all while Eric Bana plays the Coast Guard station's captain in an underwritten and barely utilized role that makes one wonder why the actor signed on for the part (unless a lot of his character's material ended up on the editing room floor).

So, after the initial set-up that isn't given enough time or material to invest us as fully as it should have, we go rotating through those characters and settings. On paper it probably looked like it should work marvelously, but in final filmed form, it just didn't for me. It's not bad, mind you. I sort of like the old-fashioned film vibe all were going for. And the effects are handled better and look more realistic than in the recent Ron Howard at-sea misfire, "In the Heart of the Sea."

Even so, visual and visceral content will only take you so far, and I never felt emotionally connected with the characters enough to care, while the action and peril never had me on the edge of my seat. It's an amazing true tale, but the filmed version didn't amaze me -- unlike my former coworker's recounting of his own harrowing experiences -- and it should have. "The Finest Hours" rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 13, 2016 / Posted January 29, 2016

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