The Reader’s Digest Version

When I was young my parents subscribed to Reader’s Digest. We ended up with stacks of them around the house. One department I always enjoyed was “Drama in Real Life” which were true stories of heroism. Before I could read for myself, I had my parents read me as a bedtime story one particular article about a runaway train over and over until the magazine basically disintegrated. The articles were long on action and short on characterization – they told what a person did, not so much why they did it. That pretty much sums up the new movie, The Finest Hours.

It’s based on the rescue of the crew of tanker Pendleton during a full-force nor’easter in February, 1952. The gale was so strong it actually split two tankers in half off of Cape Cod. The main boat of the Coast Guard station was sent out to the other ship, the Fort Mercer. When the commander of the station learned of the second ship, he sent out coxswain Bernie Webber, Richard Livese, and two others in a 36-foot motorized life boat to rescue 33 of the Pendleton’s crew. They were faced with blizzard conditions on top of seas with 60 foot waves driven by 70 mph winds. For their efforts that day, Webber and his crew were awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal, the highest award of the Coast Guard.

While the depiction of the rescue is accurate, the first part of the movie focuses on Bernie (Chris Pine) and his girlfriend Miriam (Holliday Granger) falling in love and getting engaged, just before the storm hits. The production design by Michael Corenblith (Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side) along with the art direction by William Ladd Skinner (Pirates of the Caribbean, Public Enemies) and costuming by Louise Frogley (Unbroken, The Monuments Men) is first-rate in depicting small-town Cape Cod in 1952. However, the scenes set up that most stereotypical film device, the man going out into danger while the woman’s left behind to deal with it.

On the Pendleton, engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) falls into another stereotype, the guy who’s not really liked by anyone but who must save them when they’re in peril. The source of the resentment is never explained. The movie was adapted from the book by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Touglas by three screenwriters: Paul Tamasy is known mostly for the Air Bud series, though Scott Silver did 8 Mile and Eric Johnson worked with Silver on The Fighter. It seems that to tell an old-fashioned story they went with old-fashioned movie tropes. If they were aiming for a Reader’s Digest version of the story, they hit it, but the Digest doesn’t have the readership it used to, and a movie audience today expects much more.

Eric Bana is pretty much wasted as the station commander Daniel Cluff, as is Ben Foster as Richard Livese (whose name is changed to Livesey for some reason). Overall Pine and Granger work hard to be believable in their roles, though the simplistic script doesn’t help. In one of the worse scenes Miriam confronts Cluff for sending Bernie out on what amounts to a suicide mission, but all Cluff does is repeatedly order her out of the station.

The special effects are well done, especially with the depiction of the Pendleton, but these days first-rate digital effects have to be expected in an $80 million production. The days of rear-projection and blue screen are thankfully gone, and even more modestly-budgeted films can have seamless special effects these days. A movie has to be judged by what they do with the effects, not by the effects themselves.

Director Craig Gillespie did the remake of Fright Night with Colin Farrell and David Tennant, which was an improvement on the original. However he was working from a script by “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” writer and producer Marti Noxon. In between Fright Night and The Finest Hours Gillespie directed the pedestrian Disney flick Million Dollar Arm. The Finest Hours is closer to the latter rather than the former, not just by chronology.

It might have been good for Gillespie and the screenwriters to look at a more recent movie rather than trying to capture the style of a ‘50s flick. They could have emulated The Perfect Storm, which had its problems but at least had a well-told story line and clarity of characters that captured your emotions. I’d had hopes that The Finest Hours would at least match Storm, but I was disappointed.

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