“The Finest Hours” is a ripping good seafaring yarn based on a famous shipwreck and the Coast Guardsmen who undertook the “suicide mission” to rescue the survivors.
It’s old fashioned in all the right ways, built on Chris Pine’s most understated performance, solid support from Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Eric Bana and Holliday Grainger, and filmed like a snowy, sepia-tinted 3-D postcard from the past.
In February of 1952, all that the shy, unassuming Bernie Webber wants out of life is to stay warm at his post — the Wellfleet, Massachusetts Coast Guard station — and get permission from his commanding officer to marry Miriam (Grainger).
That’s “just a formality,” and a dated one. But Webber is a “by the book” Guardsman. He doesn’t make a lot of eye contact, had to be nagged into dating Miriam. Truth be told, she had to propose to him. Bernie harbors guilt about a failed mission, frets about his worthiness as a man thanks to the accusing looks the locals give him.
“I don’t want to disappoint nobody.”
But a Nor’Easter has blown in, and the tanker Pendleton is in trouble. Casey Affleck plays Ray Sybert, the sea dog/engineer who hears the hum of the new welds in the hull, and barely has time to predict the ship’s demise when it splits in two. The bow, with the bridge and the unseen captain who ignored warnings, goes down. The unpopular Sybert has to convince the surviving crew not to kill themselves by taking to lifeboats in a raging storm. They have to keep the stern afloat until somebody comes looking for them.
Considering that they have no radio, that visibility in a snow storm is limited and the nearest Coast Guard station has glitchy radar, that’s a long shot.
But they are discovered, and Commander Cluff (Eric Bana), a drawling Southerner whose men don’t think he knows local conditions well enough to be giving orders, sends Bernie and three other volunteers out to look for survivors.
The script (Oscar nominee Scott “The Fighter” Silver had a hand in it) builds up dissent in the station over “the suicide mission,” in the town where Bernie is a pariah and on the sinking tanker, where the crew debates the merits of prayer and “every man for himself.”
Director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl,” “Million Dollar Arm”), out of his depth here, helps his actors get across the fatalism of the doomed — working class professionals using the very limits of their skills to try and survive this murderous night.
“It’s the Coast Guard,” Bernie mutters. “They say you gotta go out. They don’t say you gotta come back.” Sounds like a man resigned to his fate, and in need of redemption.
The characters — remember, this is inspired by a true story — are ’50s movie “types” — the cynical old salt Guardsman (Ben Foster), assorted greenhorns, the plump, jolly ship’s cook (Abraham Benrubi) who sings (badly) “Sit down, you’re rocking the boat” to calm his messmates’ nerves.
The sprinklings of humor echo a different time, too. A young volunteer whose normal duty is on a lightship sees their boat and pleads, “Please tell me we’re taking that boat to a bigger boat.”
The effects are several digital generations above those of “Titanic” or “The Perfect Storm,” so “The Finest Hours” presents a stunningly realistic shipwreck, roiling seas and glorious underwater shots of the plunging and rolling 36 foot Coast Guard boat.
The Cape Cod accents come and go, and the actors needed to be reminded how cold their characters would have been — coatless in a blizzard, wrestling with machinery in freezing sea water. The melodramatic touches are as obvious as such moments always have been.
But “The Finest Hours” is an adventure drama with sea legs, a story of heroism steeped in period detail, played with sympathy and stoicism by people who respect such old fashioned virtues.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of peril
Cast: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Holliday Grainger, Casey Affleck, John Ortiz, Eric Bana
Credits: Directed by Craig Gillespie, script by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson. A Walt Disney release.
Running time: 1:57