Truth is duller than fiction in The Finest Hours, a story of real-life Coast Guard heroism coasting on patriotic goodwill.
In February 1952, the New England coast was battered by a blizzard leaving two oil tankers sheared in two, sinking in the Atlantic Ocean. One ship, the Pendleton, wasn't noticed until most Coast Guard resources were already devoted to the other rescue mission. That left a crew of four in a relatively small boat as the only hope for 33 sailors stranded at sea.
The Finest Hours isn't as tense as it would be if the mission's success weren't so well-known, now part of Disney's ad campaign. Director Craig Gillespie turns in a decent sea rescue flick, its CGI seams occasionally showing and its resolution appearing to be a result of blind luck. That's no way to run an action movie but it's apparently true.
Chris Pine stars as Bernie Webber, a Coast Guardsman who knows New England waters like the back of his hand. Yet he leads into the storm's teeth when the Pendleton's disaster is confirmed. Armed with a dubious chowdah accent, Pine's performance is a flimsy hook for such an adventure to hang upon.
Performances are judged by how much characterization the actors are able to sneak into expressions and intonations, since such depth certainly isn't on the screenplay's pages. In that regard, Casey Affleck and Holliday Grainger deliver the most, the former making a hazy character relatable, the latter adding layers to a cliche.
Affleck plays the Pendleton's engine rat Ray Sybert, who we're reminded often is "married" to the ship, and therefore mistrusted by crewmates desperate to return to their families. Ray's knowledge of the ship — or half of it — is vital to survival, planning to construct a makeshift rudder and steer the Pendleton onto a shoal to prevent its sinking. What could be a solely heroic role, Affleck imbues with shades of resignation to being a loner and duty to save those making him feel outcast.
Grainger is a different sort of impressive, a fresh face — at least, one not really noticed before — getting an old-fashioned movie star showcasing and mostly earning it. Miriam is essentially the girl left behind in so many of her era's films, from her introductory approach toward the camera to fade-out kiss. Grainger delivers a subdued worrier with credible backbone. She's an actor to watch, with better material.
Pine's handsomeness doesn't support all of Bernie's awkward or dauntless behaviors, especially a late bout of fatigue while putting on a brave face to the survivors. Eric Bana's commander is a one-note authoritarian role, played on key. Ben Foster's turn as Coast Guardsman Richard Livesey is one-note brooding.
Gillespie's crew executes one bravura sequence of passing coordinates by word of mouth from the Pendleton's topside through decks and hallways to Ray's engine room crew. This flawlessly faux one-shot tracking of action is the kind of clear, sustained imagery the movie needs more often to really move.
The Finest Hours' finest moments are on stormy seas, as one would expect. Gillespie stages a tense sequence crossing forbidding shoals making waves more intense, with centrifugal force playing nasty tricks. Nothing memorable as the swamping wave of The Perfect Storm but effective. The rescue sequence isn't Hollywood spectacular due to the truth; survivors jump into the Atlantic and are hoisted aboard the Coast Guard ship. The movie's wrap-up relies more upon hoke than physical heroics.
As more movies these days trumpet their real-life inspirations, the words "based on a true story" dips a bit in appeal. What is truth in movies? Sometimes stranger than fiction, which, to its credit The Finest Hours doesn't appear to be. It's a story told accurately, if not particularly well.
Contact Steve Persall at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.