'The Finest Hours': Film Review

Too much of this action thriller feels dead in the water.

Chris Pine and Casey Affleck topline a dramatization of a remarkable 1952 rescue at sea.

An impressively rendered killer storm is the star of The Finest Hours, Disney’s recreation of an astounding ordeal off the coast of Cape Cod in the winter of 1952. Based on a book subtitled “The True Story Behind the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Rescue,” the feature is unapologetically old-school in a way that suits the “greatest generation” vibe of unassuming ingenuity and lack of pretension. Leads Chris Pine and Casey Affleck are fully in sync with that sensibility, even as they’re surrounded by a collection of disaster-genre types rather than full-blooded characters.

At the helm of this ultra-earnest entertainment, with its expository dialogue and meticulous visuals, Craig Gillespie isn’t able to conjure a stirring cinematic experience. The pieces don’t fuse so much as fit together, and much of the action feels instructive rather than immersive. Even so, the film’s promise of thrill-ride spectacle — it’s going out in a variety of 3D formats — should help it ride a strong wave at the box office.

Screenwriters Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, who previously collaborated on The Fighter, set up parallel tales of derring-do, with Pine’s Coast Guard coxswain, Bernie Webber, and Affleck’s tanker engineer, Raymond Sybert, separately thrust into roles of authority amidst overwhelming danger. With no backstory, Affleck manages to turn his man of few words into the movie’s most compelling figure.

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Webber gets more of a setup, one verging on corn. Much as the period design can feel too precise and the score melodramatic, the screenplay (and, to a lesser degree, Pine’s performance) overemphasizes Webber’s straight-arrow rectitude and decency. His fiancée, Miriam (Holliday Grainger, who played one of the stepsisters in last year’s Cinderella), is as feisty as he is rule-bound. She’s the one who popped the question, a fact that some of his fellow Guardsmen won’t let him forget. And on the fateful night of the storm, she has no compunction about confronting Webber’s commanding officer (Eric Bana, doing what little he can in a thankless role).

The nor’easter that devastates the Eastern Seaboard on that February night leaves not one but two oil tankers sheared in two, and most rescue resources have gone to one ship when news of the second, the Pendleton, arrives. With only his less experienced men available, the Chatham Coast Guard station’s new boss, Daniel Cluff (Bana), orders Webber and a small crew (Kyle Gallner, John Magaro and an underused Ben Foster) into the tempest on what sounds like a suicide mission to everyone, including the loyal, obedient Webber.

As Cluff’s vague Southern drawl indicates, he’s the outsider in this New England culture, the one who doesn’t understand the power of the sea. (Few films pull off the Massachusetts accent without distracting self-consciousness, and this one’s no exception, with Cape Cod-born Affleck faring best on that front.)

Tossed and battered, the 36-foot boat manned by Webber & Co. makes its way blindly toward the stern of the Pendleton, where Sybert has become de facto captain to his 32 surviving mates — the proletariat of the ship, and not all of them eager to follow his orders. Like Webber, he’s something of an outsider at work, and that connective tissue between them is the screenplay’s most affecting angle. In the sharpest piece of dialogue, Sybert responds to a shipmate who dismisses him as an unmarried man, and therefore someone not truly invested in survival, with a simple “I’ve got a life just the same as you.” He proceeds to jury-rig a manual tiller and devises a brilliantly counterintuitive plan to run the ship aground.

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Such tart moments are rare, though; for the most part, the film is at its best when the dialogue is stripped away and the man-vs.-nature theme plays out in pure action. Within the slowly drowning tanker, there’s a memorable relay communication of navigation info through the decks, like a life-or-death game of telephone. Out on the water, there’s Webber’s uncanny navigation of the lifeboat through a mammoth curl, as if straight into the eye of a hurricane, and the no-less-treacherous rescue itself, when Webber faces nearly three times as many survivors as his craft is intended to hold.

The combination of location work, studio water tanks and CGI isn’t always seamless, and though Gillespie delivers strong moments, he struggles to find an engaging rhythm for the material. In terms of his previous work, Hours lands closer to the unconvincing nudging of Million Dollar Arm than the weird tenderness of Lars and the Real Girl, though there are components of both. The film’s title suggests a certain melancholy along with the obvious pride. Despite the too-neat narrative, Pine and Affleck penetrate the surface to make you wonder about their reluctant heroes and the years that lie ahead for them.

In a nice period touch, one of Sybert’s chief allies, the ship’s cook (Abraham Benrubi), croons the (relatively new at the time) Guys and Dolls number “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” — a far more incisive musical element than Carter Burwell’s bombastic score. As to the visuals, the darkening effect of 3D glasses adds an unneeded layer of drab to the wintry sepia palette, but the accomplished cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (The Others) conveys the characters' intense vulnerability in the snow-laden shoreline, the turbulent waves and especially in his long views of the two crafts on the dark Atlantic.

Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures, Whitaker Entertainment, Red Hawk Entertainment
Cast: Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Holliday Grainger, Eric Bana, John Ortiz, Kyle Gallner, John Magaro, Beau Knapp, Abraham Benrubi
Director: Craig Gillespie
Screenwriters: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson
Based on the book by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias
Producers: Jim Whitaker, Dorothy Aufiero
Executive producer: Doug Merrifield
Director of photography: Javier Aguirresarobe
Production designer: Michael Corenblith
Costume designer: Louise Frogley
Editor: Tatiana S. Riegel
Composer: Carter Burwell
Casting: Mindy Marin

Rated PG-13, 118 minutes

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