Just as medical professionals are guided by the mandate "First do no harm," so filmmakers should follow the dictum "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." The creators of The Finest Hours were charged with bringing to the screen a story that was anything but broke — one of the most miraculous true rescue sagas of all time. So it's a shame they "fixed" it anyway, almost to the point of unwatchability.
Least watchable is the opening half hour. We meet Coast Guard coxswain Bernie Webber (Chris Pine at his stiffest) and girlfriend Miriam (Holliday Grainger) and follow them from first date to engagement as though their relationship were the foundation for all that follows. The truth is, it's extraneous to the story. Where this narrative thread isn't extraneous, it's fabricated. Virtually nothing in the scenes featuring Miriam actually happened. And a baffling number of scenes feature Miriam.
Those include scenes set on the night of February 18, 1952, when a horrific nor'easter ripped two oil tankers in half off the Massachusetts coast. With most of the station's resources already deployed to the first ship, the station's commander (Eric Bana, in career freefall) sends Bernie and three volunteers to the aid of the second ship, the Pendleton, in a 36-foot wooden boat not designed to handle giant waves or gale-force winds.
When she learns what's happened, Miriam storms into the station and demands that Bernie be called back. And keeps demanding, until she leaves in a huff and promptly drives into a snow bank. It's not clear what screenwriters Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson thought this concocted bit of preposterousness would add. (The real-life Miriam was home with the flu that night.)
Corn like that continually distracts from the narrative, which is so compelling on its own that it hardly needs embellishment. The re-creation of Bernie's perilous attempt to smash through mountains of ocean and find the Pendleton — even after night descends and his compass is torn from the small craft — is thrillingly executed. The drama unfolding aboard the tanker's sinking stern effectively complements the action on the water. With the bow (and all officers and radios) at the bottom of the sea, it falls to chief engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) to keep the metal monster afloat and the crew working together.
Unfortunately, in this plot thread as well, director Craig Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm) and company apply fixes where none are needed. Denied much in the way of dialogue, Affleck is left to act primarily with his facial muscles. His character comes up with a plan to rig a giant tiller and steer the vessel onto a shoal to await help. It's a bold, busy enterprise that's fun to watch. But I doubt it's more fun to watch than what the real Sybert did: maneuver the half-ship using its reverse gear to prevent it from drifting onto a shoal and breaking up.
Speaking of unnecessary embellishments: The film was converted to 3D after completion. The results are not awesome. Not only does the technology fail to add to the experience, it detracts from it by making night scenes — which comprise most of the movie — overly dark and often difficult to follow. The storm's a digital doozy, but, owing to the sloppy conversion, it's a far from perfect one.
The Pendleton rescue is among the most amazing stories in nautical history. If Disney had allowed the facts to speak for themselves, The Finest Hours might have wound up amazing, too. But it didn't. It tweaked and twisted those facts and added hokey, hammy stuff that never happened. The result, more like a high-seas Hallmark movie, is a promising project gone off course.