An old-fashioned tale of heroism in the face of insurmountable odds, “The Finest Hours” is never less than aggressively hokey and manipulatively sentimental — and, in the end, better off for it. Like director Craig Gillespie’s prior “Million Dollar Arm,” this Disney production concerns a based-on-real-events affair, in this case the daring 1952 Coast Guard rescue of the crewmen of the SS Pendleton, an enormous tanker that was literally severed in two during a brutal February nor’easter. That seemingly impossible mission is undertaken by four brave Coast Guardsmen led by Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), a reserved young man whose respectfulness toward women is matched by his adherence to rules and regulations. As embodied by Pine, he’s a soft-spoken do-gooder, and one whose prior failure to save a group of sailors provides him with added motivation to brave the treacherous storm.
It’s a conventional set-up for a story that plays out with almost metronomic predictability, and yet Gillespie imbues his material (based on Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias’ book of the same name) with just enough sincerity and off-kilter personality to make it work. That’s most true during the film’s opening passages, in which Bernie first meets Miriam (a captivating Holliday Grainger), a woman with whom he’d been previously speaking with on the phone. Their first look, shot in an extended zoom into close-up by Gillespie that climaxes with the fur-coated woman turning to gaze upon her date, has a silky loveliness that’s maintained throughout their ensuing first night together. And it continues when the story jumps a year ahead to a dance where Miriam — a feisty telephone operator not afraid to admit she’s scared of the water, and yet brash enough to speak her mind in any company — asks Bernie to marry her. It’s a proposal that catches him off guard, and which (after some momentary you-don’t-want-to-get hitched-to-a-sailor hesitation) he accepts.
Gillespie and screenwriters Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson so sweetly establish Bernie and Miriam’s relationship that it’s somewhat disappointing when “The Finest Hours” actually begins getting down to its real derring-do business. On his way to ask his commanding officer (Eric Bana) for permission to have time off for a wedding, Bernie and his mates are faced with a catastrophic crisis: two tankers, both off the Massachusetts shore, have split down the middle. With most of the Coast Guard’s efforts directed at the SS Fort Mercer, it’s left to Bernie and his makeshift crew — Richard Livesey (Ben Foster), Andrew Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner), and Ervin Maske (John Magaro) — to do their best to find the SS Pendleton — that is, if they can first make it past the deadly Chatham Bar waves that serve as an impenetrable barrier between the shore and the great open ocean. Or, as everyone in this heavily Boston-accented film, pronounces it: “Chatham BAH.”
Meanwhile, “The Finest Hours” divides its attention to also focus on the survivors trapped on the rear half of the Pendleton, who are led by Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), an engineer who, in the film’s funniest moment, explains his plan to his bickering comrades — some of whom want to just pray for a miracle, some of whom want to stupidly escape via lifeboats destined to be smashed against the tanker’s hull — while he peels a hardboiled egg like some atonal variation of Marlon Brando’s orange routine in “The Godfather.” Affleck affects a slightly strange gruffness that interjects a bit of weirdness into the proceedings, thereby alleviating the otherwise-omnipresent sense of cornball emotion and suspense doled out by its set pieces.
For its aquatic action, “The Finest Hours” indulges in an array of “The Perfect Storm”-esque CG waves, with Bernie’s small motorboat leaping over towering swells, riding curls like a wannabe-surfboard, and literally plunging through water. That you can’t always make out what’s happening is both a knock on the film’s digital effects and an accurate representation of the chaotic madness that the characters are enduring. Though there’s never a true sense of danger — the overriding tone makes it clear, from the outset, that genuine tragedy isn’t in the cards — Gillespie’s orchestration of these maritime exploits has a muscularity that makes up for the proceedings’ general been-there, done-that nature. Similarly, Pine’s aw-shucks demeanor is never quite convincing; one can feel the “Star Trek” leading man acting his way through each diffident downward glance and mumbled line delivery. And yet his muted turn remains disarming, exuding an endearing earnestness that ultimately helps sell the film’s melodramatic celebration of courageous selflessness. [B-]