When I wrote about the campaign for The Finest Hours I noted a distinct lack of emotional connection with any of the characters. There’s a lot of drama on display in the marketing but very little about the characters that we’re asked to care about.
The movie tells the true story of Bernie Webber (played by Chris Pine), a Coast Guard sailor who is somewhere south of the middle on the food chain. When a particularly bad storm hits in the winter of 1952, two tankers experience troubles off the coasts and are in need of assistance. One crew goes to deal with what is seen to be the more immediate of the emergencies while Webber and his small crew are dispatched to deal with the Pendleton, which has split in half. So the other half of the story is about Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), keeping the crew there alive until they can be rescued.
There are precious few surprises in the actual movie. Pine works hard to do what he can but he’s not given anything to do as Webber other than appear overly earnest and sincere. There’s no character arc – he’s a blandly good guy at the beginning of the story and he’s a blandly good guy at the end – to Webber, who we’re asked to care about only because he’s the one who’s going to rescue the stranded crew. Even his relationship with his girlfriend Miriam ( Holliday Grainger) can’t add any depth because she’s an even more shallow character, given nothing to do other than make moon eyes at her man and then encouraging everyone on land to keep caring about him while he’s out on the mission.
Affleck fares better as the tanker engine room supervisor who suddenly finds himself in the role of crew leader, helping them to do what they need to stay alive until they can be found. He at least is given other characters to react to, compared to Pine who affects such a hangdog look he’s playing against the floorboards more than anything else. Affleck holds his own and commands the (green) screen well, making the hard decisions because he’s seeing the problems others aren’t.
So the movie splits its time between the two stories. But because we get a sense of the stakes aboard the Pendleton where Affleck is so strongly, the lack of any urgency in Pine’s story is all the more notable. Everyone kind of takes their time and looks like they’re doing their best, but there’s no oomph to the story. There’s nothing there to make us think things might not turn out alright. That’s different for the Affleck story, where problems are always cropping up and their survival at least becomes somewhat gripping.
That means the campaign, which promised spectacle but little emotion, was pretty spot-on. Which is too bad because this is a great story filled with inherent drama, none of which comes through in the story or on the screen.