Here's an odd thing to say of a lavishly expensive 3D IMAX maritime disaster flick that hits theaters just a month after the last one: They don't make them like this anymore. There's a reason for that, of course — the parents and grandparents who like 'em stolid and corny don't flood the theaters opening weekend. But they'll be in luck, a couple years from now, when The Finest Hours pops up on TBS. As if hopped up on its own heroes' last-century can-do zeal, Craig Gillespie's earnest, square-jawed period piece puts its head down and gets its familiar rescue-drama done.
No obstacle will stop Gillespie's crowd pleasing: our weariness, just weeks after In the Heart of the Sea, of the undulations of CGI tidal waves? The Finest Hours makes them a highlight in a lurching, dizzying set piece that in suspense and imaginative brio bests last year's superhero flicks. Our American Sniper–era skepticism of simple stories in which our armed forces face down the impossible and straight-up triumph? The Finest Hours has the chutzpah to sell us Chris Pine as the runt of the 1952 Coast Guard and then have him go against regulations and the orders of a know-nothing bureaucrat (Eric Bana!) to save 32 men from a shattered oil tanker. Even the title rebukes Michael Bay's America-loses flop 13 Hours.
Gillespie (Million Dollar Arm, Lars and the Real Girl) wins out over a script larded with story beats so old they got parodied in the original Airplane! Just as Pine's Bernie Webber grits his teeth and pilots his 36-foot Coast Guard boat into seas that rise up like angry gods, Gillespie steers head-on into cliches, powering through. They never quite capsize his film, but it does take on some water. A near-mutiny when the tanker first goes down suffers from the Disney house style, with the surviving crew spitting out such strained, family-friendly working-dude Massachusetts-ese that you might wonder if a number's coming on. Webber has to beat not just a brutal nor'easter but also his own past — he saw men die at sea the year before, and some Cape Cod salts reckon he's responsible — and his cohorts' dim expectations.
Meanwhile, that very day his headstrong fiancee (played by a smashing Holliday Grainger) is after him to ask his Coast Guard superior to sign off on their betrothal, an archaic formality Bernie takes on with great solemnity. Sure, coxswain Webber is embodied by Chris “Captain Kirk” Pine, but he's a shy, by-the-book young man who the movie asks us to think of as something like Steve Rogers before he takes his Captain America super-serum.
Gillespie is by the book as well. As a director, he's like the middle-class citizens in a politician's speech: He works hard, plays by the rules. If the script is hokey, and the computer-generated storms over the top, Gillespie honors the story's working-folks gravity with excellent on-set and location shooting. With care and ingenuity, he and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe tour us through the doomed tanker's decks, corridors and flooding engine room, establishing a lived-in physical reality that makes the inevitable destruction feel momentous. He only offers up today's de rigueur computer-aided soaring camera flourishes when a moment warrants one, and the best — when a worker discovers that the storm has cracked the tanker in half — is a model of how early restraint can improve later payoffs.
The less everyone chats, and the more they set themselves to problem solving, the more arresting the film gets. (The exception: Grainger's tense scenes facing down the Coast Guard brass, demanding they call her husband-to-be back from his apparently doomed mission.) The Finest Hours peaks too early, perhaps, with the seamen's attempt to rig up a new tiller and run the captain-less half-ship aground before it sinks. Casey Affleck, as a taciturn engineer, crafts a complex rig-up of chains and I-beams in the engine room; then the crew on deck holler orders down to him, telephone-game style, through the cramped corridors.
The filmmakers have little compunction about simplifying and glossing-up the real derring-do all this is based on, but they never come up with any corresponding ingenuity for Webber. The third act suffers from this lapse into tastefulness. Once they have persevered through the breakers, risking it all to save those stranded on the tanker, Webber and his crew of three just bob along in the dark. They'll do anything to rescue these strangers, but they can't find them, and Gillespie — hardworking though he is — just can't pound their idle floating and peering into drama.
But in its story and its storytelling, The Finest Hours exemplifies perseverance. Look at how hard the real Webber worked. And look at how hard Gillespie and crew worked. If you get that far, you're going to grind on through with them. You'll be rewarded not just with a happy ending, but also with one more taut sequence of desperate decision-making: How do you rescue 32 men with a tiny boat that the sea keeps trying to dash? Forget the occasional fustiness and lulls. The real reason they don't make them like this these days is that the creators of blockbusters have forgotten that the loss of life is a tragedy, and that seeing it saved is more edifying than seeing it snuffed.