The film opens on a halting moment of courtship between Bernie and his eventual wife Miriam (Holliday Grainger), and it’s probably the film’s most charming scene, since Bernie is about as stilted and awkward with the woman he loves as anyone could imagine. It’s here that Gillespie’s talents are best-deployed: He made the winsome, strange indie dramedy Lars and the Real Girl in 2007, and sometimes Bernie doesn’t feel too far off from Ryan Gosling’s character in that film, a sweet loner who falls in love with a sex doll. Miriam is much more spirited, but once the movie leaps forward a few months to the fated day of the storm, she’s relegated to a more predictable role, biting her lip and worrying about Bernie on the shore while he’s off being a hero.
Gillespie does his best to give Miriam her due, but the real star of his movie is the ocean and its CGI waves—particularly the ones crashing around the sandbar Bernie’s rescue boat has to navigate its way over. This is the film’s most impressive sequence, not only from a technical standpoint, but also because of the number of times the ensemble has to repeat the word “bar,” a crucial test of their Cape Cod accents (which range from solid to best ignored). Otherwise, the action is disappointingly foggy, not helped by the dim 3D conversion that seems a throwback to the medium’s earliest, cruddiest days. Why The Finest Hours had to be in 3D at all is beyond me, but it renders many of the rescue scenes, which take place at night, a muddy mess of dark water and blurry people.
Over on the wrecked tanker, Casey Affleck gives the kind of measured, thought-out performance he’s so eminently capable of, even if the film isn’t complex enough to rise to his level. As Ray Sybert, the tanker’s standoffish engineer, he comes up with makeshift solutions for steering a boat after half of it has broken off and sunk into the ocean, mumbling orders at the rest of the crew while furrowing his brow and fixing any dissidents with a dead-eyed stare.
It’s hard to encapsulate exactly why Affleck is so good, but as with his other best performances (Gone Baby Gone, The Assassination of Jesse James), he animates an introverted character with subtle mental busywork whenever he’s on the screen. You can always see Ray’s brain-wheels turning, and it’s enough to convince his fellow crewmates to listen to him and follow his unorthodox advice (essentially, to try and run the remaining piece of the ship aground and wait for rescue) even though he has no authority to set the course. Littered among the tanker’s crew are worthy character actors like Graham McTavish, Abraham Benrubi, and Michael Raymond-James, who offer half-hearted support and dissent as Affleck the boat whisperer bids them to follow his commands.
Like many a “true story,” The Finest Hours doesn’t have a lot of suspense—its own trailer trumpeted that it was based on “the most incredible rescue in Coast Guard history.” Gillespie is wise enough to recognize that and simply make a film about the work of pulling off such a rescue, rather than try and ratchet up the drama. There are no waterworks on the shore from Miriam, who spends much of her time prodding Bernie’s commanding officer Daniel Cluff (a rather thankless role for Eric Bana) for information. Reference is made to a failed rescue attempt that haunts Bernie from the year before, but there are no tragic flashbacks or drawn-out arguments between him and his first mate (Ben Foster) over whether they’re making the right call. The boat is out there in the ocean, in the middle of a storm, which means they’ll be damned if they aren’t going to go and get it. Too few of Hollywood’s recent offerings can boast such a simple throughline and know when to wrap it up, so while it might feel ridiculous to give The Finest Hours credit for having a finite ending, it’s one quality that really makes the film stand out.