At its peaks, cinema can push artistic boundaries, grapple with profound philosophical questions, comment lucidly on politics and culture, shine new lights on history, question our assumptions, make us think, make us feel, make us argue. Unfortunately, not every week offers a new film that reaches such lofty targets, or even aspires to do so. But fortunately, there are times for most of us when we’re simply in the mood for an old-fashioned movie-movie, full of splash and derring-do and perhaps a bit of romance on the side. Craig Gillespie’s The Finest Hours won’t take home any prizes for narrative innovation, but it’s a satisfying wallow in maritime adventure for audiences who just want a dose of big-screen thrills sans cerebral challenge.
In fact, aside from having an assertive heroine, The Finest Hours revels in being retro. It’s the true-life tale of a foolhardy, improbably successful attempt to rescue several dozen men from the aft half of a tanker ship that has split in half during a colossal storm off Cape Cod in 1952 – using only a tiny Coast Guard boat, because all the other rescue boats are off responding to yet another tanker that has split in half. The movie, produced by Walt Disney Studios, has the feel of a 1950s Disney True-Life Adventure feature: full of stalwart all-American heroes and so squeaky-clean that you could take Granny and the preschoolers along (though the huge waves might scare them).
It’s also rigorously designed to reflect the look, sound, feel and social mores of the early ’50s. This bogs things down a bit in the romantic framing device about the perky gal onshore (Holliday Grainger) who’s waiting for the square-jawed hero, bosun’s mate Bernie Webber (Chris Pine), to come back from his suicide mission. But if you’re a moviegoer who appreciates the meticulous craft of art direction, you’ll find lovingly replicated details to help you slog through even the less dramatically compelling onshore sequences. The costumes, the hairdos, the Big Band music in a dancehall scene, the cars and sets and furniture and low-tech props are all spot-on historically authentic. The song with which the cook on the sinking ship likes to torment his crewmates, “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat,” comes from Guys and Dolls, which had been a major Broadway hit in the years just prior to the movie’s setting. These guys did their research.
The movie was shot mostly in and around Chatham, Massachusetts, where the actual shipwreck and rescue took place. And aside from the storm-tossed action, what works best about The Finest Hours is the way that it conveys the delicate social webs of a small community where nearly everyone’s livelihood is tied to the sea, where wintry weather is the most implacable of enemies and firsthand knowledge of the coastal waters the most essential of skillsets, where old grudges and debts are never forgotten. Webber accepts the seemingly impossible assignment from his clueless commanding officer (Eric Bana) partly because he once failed to complete a rescue mission, and the kin of the deceased keep reminding him that people are dead on his account.
The sequences in which Webber and his small crew (Ben Foster, John Magaro and Kyle Gallner) smash their way across a treacherous sandbar to get into the open sea, surfing through huge pipeline waves in their absurdly small craft (and losing their compass in the process), offer riveting white-knuckle thrills, even though we know how this story ultimately turns out. Better yet are the scenes aboard the sinking SS Pendleton, where a surly, unsociable engineer named Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) takes command by default after the captain goes down with the forward half of the ship.
Sybert’s a problem-solver by nature who doesn’t believe in luck or prayer, and his scheme to jury-rig a steering mechanism to strand the vessel on a shoal and stave off the flooding of its boilers long enough to buy time for rescuers to arrive provides even more exciting moments of cinema than those badass CGI waves. There are a couple of long tracking shots of teams of crewmembers shouting instructions back and forth between the stormy exterior of the ship and the slowly flooding engine room that are as pulse-poundingly terrific as the sequence of mountaintop war beacons being lit in The Return of the King.
To make matters worse for the surviving crew of the Pendleton, there’s contention in the ranks, and a faction of sailors led by Able Seaman Brown (Michael Raymond-James) wants to commandeer the remaining lifeboats and skedaddle. But Sybert needs the efforts of all hands to make his plan work, so there’s ample dramatic tension in the group dynamics. “We all live, or we all die” is the movie’s tagline, and it applies equally to the shipwreck victims and to their would-be rescuers. Nice to have an action movie where the heroics involve selfless teamwork as much as rugged individualism and willingness to disobey orders when the one giving the orders is an idiot (though there’s a fair bit of that sort of conflict as well).
In sum, The Finest Hours offers nothing particularly new, but it’s entertaining, decently acted by a solid ensemble cast (especially Affleck) and shows what can be done with state-of-the-art CGI techniques besides monsters and aliens smashing cities. The Atlantic in a nor’easter can be monstrous enough for anyone and then some.