A perfectly entertaining, sometimes quite well-crafted disaster drama that nonetheless retreats from the memory almost as soon as the credits roll.
“ The Finest Hours ” tells the story of a little-known yet fairly incredible 1950s rescue mission, in which a four-man band of Coast Guard troops went above and beyond the call of duty, steering out into impossible sea conditions in the dead of night to reach a crippled oil tanker. So perhaps the worst one could say about Craig Gillespie’s film is that, rather than their finest hours, the whole cast and crew all put in a solid shift at the office making the movie, producing a perfectly entertaining, sometimes quite well-crafted disaster drama that nonetheless retreats from the memory almost as soon as the credits roll. The disappointing returns for Ron Howard’s recent seafaring saga “In the Heart of the Sea” should give the producers pause, but the film certainly offers enough to provide a modest-sized audience with some respite from the horrors of the January multiplex.
Like “The Perfect Storm,” the film takes place off the coast of Massachusetts during a particularly vicious nor’easter, yet here the focus is divided evenly between a commercial ship in distress and the rescue party heading straight for it. The former is the Pendleton, an oil tanker that split in half under rough waters in winter of 1952, leaving the fore section at the bottom of the sea, and the surviving sailors in its aft section adrift with no radio or commanding officers. The latter is the humble Coast Guard boat dispatched to find the Pendleton, a task that goes from difficult to effectively impossible when night falls and the boat’s compass breaks.
Once it gets to the moment of truth, “ The Finest Hours ” is a fully respectable nautical nailbiter. Unfortunately, it does take its sweet time getting its sea legs, opening up with the first-date-to-engagement courtship of young Coast Guard sailor Bernie Webber (a square-jawed, taciturn Chris Pine) and telephone operator Miriam (Holliday Grainger). Director Gillespie is a sure hand with sweet small-town repartee (see “Lars and the Real Girl”), and the film does yeoman’s work to make Miriam into more than just a thankless girlfriend character, but it’s hard to get too invested in this long prelude, knowing their romance is only being set up to ratchet up the emotional stakes once one of them gets lost at sea.
Gillespie is clearly more comfortable off land, and as the storm rolls in, the film provides a dose of high-seas drama on the ill-fated oil tanker, as the boat’s chief engineer, Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), takes de facto command of the vessel’s survivors, not all of whom are thrilled about suddenly taking orders from a scrawny, socially awkward bookworm. The boat is filled with stock types, from the He-Man Scotsman (Graham McTavish) to the jolly cook (Abraham Benrubi) and insubordinate bad apple (Michael Raymond James), but Gillespie’s excitable camerawork — swooping up and down through the layers of the ship, following the crew as they shout messages through the corridors in an elaborate game of telephone — helps bring the ship to life. (Curiously, Boston native Affleck is one of the few actors here to eschew a broad New England accent, and perhaps uncoincidentally he registers as the cast standout.)
After a good deal of hemming and hawing back on shore, the local commanding officer (Eric Bana, sporting a patchy Southern drawl and filling out an underwritten antagonist role) decides to send Bernie out to search for survivors in a 36-foot-boat, despite the locals’ assurance that a vessel of that size would never make it past the sandbar in current conditions. Bernie takes volunteers Richard (Ben Foster) and Andy (Kyle Gallner), as well as a woefully unprepared seaman (John Magaro) who just happened to be passing at the outpost for the night.