There are no hidden depths to this nautical adventure story, featuring a lantern-jawed Chris Pine at his most heroic
Life can be a bewildering ordeal sometimes, but you know where you stand with Chris Pine in a lifeboat. Picture Pine, who’s best known for playing the lantern-jawed Captain Kirk in the new Star Trek films, scudding across a pewter sea, eyes combing the waves for survivors, chin jutting into the tempest. Never mind that the currents are heaving you hither and yon, you can’t feel your legs, and the downpour has visibility at less than three feet. There’s basically no question that you’re going to be rescued.
These are the simple and honest comforts of The Finest Hours, a period-piece adventure from Walt Disney Studios whichjust about qualifies as a disaster movie – although the word "disaster" suggests mayhem and uncertainty, which are two moods Craig Gillespie’s film is more than happy to get by without.
You wouldn’t think that would be possible in light of the story it’s based on: a real-life rescue in 1952 off Cape Cod, in which four coast guards navigated 60-foot waves in a modest motor lifeboat to save the crew of a 500ft oil tanker that had been torn in two by a cataclysmic storm.
Few people would fancy the odds of survival – particularly those who have seen the 2000 George Clooney vehicle The Perfect Storm, another based-in-fact nautical drama set on the same stretch of unquiet sea. But when Pine’s character Bernie Webber first appears on screen, on his way to a first date with Miriam (an excellent Holliday Grainger), a telephone exchange girl who looks as though she’s recently arrived in town from a Dante Gabriel Rossetti painting, you suspect that everything’s going to be alright.
Director Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Million Dollar Arm) ladles on the nostalgia and Americana – cold beers for the guys, cocktails with glacé cherries for the girls, and a swing band on stage at the dance hall. These are not characters that are about to break your heart.
When disaster strikes, Bernie’s sent out to sea by his commanding officer, played by Eric Bana with an uncertain southern accent – which is sadly more or less the end of the road for Grainger’s character, who doesn’t get a great deal more to do other than look anxiously out of windows in nice coats.
Meanwhile on the stricken tanker, we meet the chief engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), who comes up with a temporary rescue plan of his own that involves manoeuvring the ship onto a sand bar before its engines give out. Again, the drama here is by numbers – some crew members think Ray’s crazy, others leap to his aid, and there’s a lot of running along gantries and shouted instructions bouncing down corridors.
But Affleck enlivens it with an unexpected, film-elevating performance that’s almost like a pastiche of On The Waterfront-era Marlon Brando – all mumbles, smouldering stares, private smiles, and attention-grabbing fiddles (he adds a fun note of additional suspense to an already tense emergency meeting by thoughtfully peeling a hard-boiled egg while he talks.)
As for the storm itself, it’s thunderously plausible, and takes a cue from The Revenant in having water droplets cling to the camera’s lens, all the better to persuade you that what you’re watching is at least not entirely digital. It certainly doesn’t feel it – although the rescue’s methodical nature means that when the life boat reaches the ailing tanker, the parallel dramas merge into a more straightforward man-by-man extraction, and the film becomes less exciting right at the moment it could do with an extra push.
That commitment to honouring the original story is admirable – and naturally entails compare-and-contrast photographs of the cast’s real-world counterparts over the end credits. But it also means the film’s depths remain strictly nautical.
“It scares me at night,” Miriam tells Bernie as the pair gaze out to sea after their date. “You can’t see what’s underneath.”