Opening with a sepia-toned Disney logo over the sounds of some vintage 50's tunes, there's no mistaking the tone director Craig Gillespie's is after with "The Finest Hours." This is an earnest, old-fashioned adventure story. Formulaic but remarkably effective, outside of the modern special effects, the film could easily have been made in the era in which its story takes place. It's a period piece "The Perfect Storm" minus the crushing sense of tragedy.
Based on Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman's book "The Finest Hours: The True Story Of The U.S. Coast Guard's Most Daring Sea Rescue," and adapted by screenwriters Eric Johnson, Scott Silver, and Paul Tamasy, the film chronicles an incident that took place in February 1952. Chris Pine is Bernie Webber, a rule-abiding member of the Coast Guard stationed in Chatham, Massachusetts, called into action when a particularly fierce nor'easter splits the Pendleton oil tanker in two, leaving 32 survivors adrift in half a ship, without any commanding officers or a radio to signal for help.
With most of the Coast Guard's men off assisting another distressed ship, Bernie's inexperienced commander (Eric Bana, sporting a Southern accent that's truly a thing to behold) orders him to attempt a daring rescue mission with only a scrappy four-man crew (including a severely underused Ben Foster). It's a race against time as the Pendleton's chief engineer, Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) uses his ingenuity to keep the crew alive, deciding on a desperate course of action that involves running the boat aground on a shoal in order to keep what remains of the ship from sinking long enough for a rescue mission (which they're unsure is even coming) to reach them.
Any traditional adventure tale wouldn't be complete without a element of romance, here fulfilled by Bernie's courtship of the plucky Miriam (a charismatic Holliday Grainger), with whom he's been speaking over the phone for months -- they meet face-to-face for the first time as the film begins. Naturally, they've just gotten engaged when Bernie sets off on a mission that seems tantamount to suicide. The main action cuts between Bernie's rescue mission, the struggles of the Pendleton's crew, and Miriam back on land, barging into the commanding officer's headquarters and demanding that he call Bernie back.
"The Finest Hours" is the type of movie where even if you haven't seen any trailers or aren't familiar with the actual story that inspired it, you already know how things are going to turn out -- it is a Disney film after all. That the film is able to generate as much suspense as it does is impressive in itself. The scenes of Webber and his small crew piloting their tiny lifeboat out to storm-ravaged sea and cresting seemingly impossible waves, are undeniably thrilling. The computer generated effects are convincing, but do occasionally fall into weak green screen territory.
Pine has already demonstrated himself a reliable leading man, but it's the magnetic Affleck who really proves himself. He's always a good actor, but here he makes a case for himself as a bona fide movie star. It helps that men aren't treated as infallible superheroes. One of the best aspects of Pine's performance is how he allows us to see how often Webber is out-of-his-mind terrified, making his bravery all the more admirable. The performances are able to overcome some of the more clunky narrative devices: Webber's strict adherence to regulations seems manufactured only so that at a key moment he can chuck the rules aside while in the line of duty. There's also some backstory about how Webber was unable to save the men on his last rescue mission, but for some reason that story is told to us repeatedly instead of being shown, so it never has the chance to truly resonant in any way that sticks.
The recent film "In the Heart of the Sea" was also an old-fashioned seafaring epic at heart, but it attempted to spice things up with modern camera techniques, which only highlighted the creaky storytelling. Cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe uses the epic camera moves sparingly; the moment when a Pendleton crew member first discovers that half the ship he's on has been ripped away is a truly terrifying sight.
An old-school throwback, "The Finest Hours" succeeds in its minor aspirations as a well-crafted, solidly entertaining adventure, infused with the spirit of the 1950's. It's not likely to stand the test of time, but for a January or early-February deadzone release, it's practically a miracle it's as good as it is.