The opening scenes of “The Finest Hours” focus on the long, polite courtship between Coast Guard Petty Officer Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) and his girlfriend Miriam (Holliday Grainger). The place is Massachusetts, the year is 1952, and Bernie and Miriam are adorably square as they dance around the idea of getting married.
The early scenes establish the emotional stakes for Bernie in the rousing true-life adventure story to come. But they also signal the audience that this will be a very old-fashioned movie, with heroes who never give up and men who work together and steadfast women who wait for them back home. The movie is pure, satisfying old-school Hollywood melodrama; take out the thrilling CGI effects, and it could have been released in theaters on the exact same week that it’s set.
Based on the book by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias, “The Finest Hours” cuts back and forth between two thrilling tales and two heroes, each battling the brutal storm that swamped the eastern seaboard on Feb. 18, 1952.
At sea, the oil tanker Pendleton has been sheared in half by the storm. While the front half (with the captain on it) sinks to the bottom of the sea, the back half incredibly stays afloat, looking like a cross-section diagram. Assistant engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), a loner who knows the ship intimately, knows they’ve only got a few hours before the back half sinks too.
Back on shore at the Coast Guard station in Chatham, Massachusetts, Bernie’s inexperienced commanding officer (Eric Bana) sends him out into the howling winds and towering waves to find the Pendleton and rescue any survivors. All of the other rescue teams are out at a separate tanker accident, so all Bernie has is a 36-foot wooden lifeboat and a four-man crew.
(One of those crewmen is Marinette, Wisconsin native seaman Ervin Maske (John Magaro), who wasn’t stationed in Chatham, but was just passing through on leave and enthusiastically volunteered to help. Photos of the real life Maske and the others involved are shown over the closing credits.)
Bernie’s fellow guardsmen think it’s a suicide mission, but as the fundamentally decent Bernie says, “In the Coast Guard, they say you gotta go out. They don’t say you gotta come back in.”
Director Craig Gillespie (“Million Dollar Arm”) expertly builds tension by going back and forth between Bernie and Ray, each dealing with one predicament after another as they try to keep their men alive. In the wounded tanker, as the water levels rise and threaten to swamp the engine, Ray tries to guide the broken ship onto a shoal. In one continuous tracking shot, a key piece of information is relayed from the deck down to the engine room, man to man to man. It's like a high-stakes game of “Telephone,” desperate men pulling together under Ray’s leadership to save themselves.
Out at sea, Bernie’s frail rescue boat is battered mercilessly by waves that flip the boat into the air one minute and drive it down under the surface the next. The visual effects are genuinely exciting, and even though from the title (and the fact that this a Disney movie) we suspect that this film won’t have a “Perfect Storm”-like tragic ending, we’re still invested in finding out what happens.
Much of that investment comes from the quiet, centered performances of the two leads. Pine, who usually plays cocky heroes like Captain Kirk, is surprisingly effective as the shy, polite, unsure Bernie, whose sense of mission forces him to push past his fears.
But the real breakout is Affleck, usually known for playing quirky supporting character roles. Here he brings a quiet gravity to the determined Ray. There’s a scene where something bad happens, and while his shipmates start panicking, all Ray does is give the tiniest of nods, like “Yep, I knew that would happen.” And then he moves on.
It’s that kind of unshowy heroism that “The Finest Hours” aims to highlight, and makes it such an old-fashioned but satisfying story.