When Walt Disney Studios releases a film called "The Finest Hours," an exercise in dour cynicism is not to be expected. What is on offer is an old-fashioned rescue yarn that's so earnest and four-square it might have been made in the 1950s as well as taking place there.
But before scoffers scoff, realize that this tale of nautical derring-do has several things going for it to counteract the inherent obviousness of the material. These include a director who knows his way around this kind of material, special effects work that makes the peril fearfully alive, and a pip of a true story of what is considered as daring a rescue mission as the U.S. Coast Guard ever attempted.
The director, Craig Gillespie, best known for the woefully underappreciated "Lars and the Real Girl," has the ability, as he showed in Disney's "Million Dollar Arm," to tell emotional stories without overdoing the sentiment or making us feel foolish for buying into the proceedings.
Before "The Finest Hours" heads into heavy water, it takes time on shore to introduce us to two of its protagonists, Petty Officer First Class Bernie Webber (Chris Pine, who plays Capt. Kirk in the rebooted "Star Trek") and a young woman named Miriam (Holliday Grainger, who played an evil sister in "Cinderella") on the night of their blind date in November 1951.
Miriam is a Massachusetts switchboard operator who struck up a phone conversation with Bernie, a Coast Guardsman stationed in Chatham. Just one look and they're hooked and soon wedding plans, initiated by independent, assertive, modern woman Miriam, are in the offing.
But before Mr. By the Book Bernie can ask his commanding officer for permission to marry, Mother Nature makes quite the bravura appearance in the shape of a Feb. 18, 1952, nor'easter so fierce it makes "The Perfect Storm" look like the shower Gene Kelly danced through in "Singin' in the Rain."
Out on the Atlantic, a 500-foot oil tanker named the SS Pendleton is hit so hard by the storm, the vessel is ripped in half, one half (the one with the unfortunate captain on it) sinking without a trace and the other half kept afloat, at least temporarily, because of air in the ship's ballast tanks.
Left in nominal charge on the Pendleton is chief engineer Raymond Sybert, a squirrely individual nobody much likes but most of the crew respects for his knowledge of the ship.
Strongly played by Casey Affleck in what feels like a warm-up for his breakout role in Kenneth Lonergan's Sundance hit "Manchester by the Sea," Sybert has an unconventional plan to keep that half from sinking for a few hours. But not everyone onboard is buying into it, and without a working radio it's unclear how anyone will even know the Pendleton is in deep trouble.
Meanwhile, back at that Coast Guard station, there is wall-to-wall tension. Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana with a Southern accent) is new to command, and Bernie is struggling with the psychological aftereffects of an unsuccessful rescue attempt he was part of the previous year.
But when his commander decides to send Bernie and three other men (played by Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner and John Magaro) out on a suicidal rescue mission in a 36-foot wooden lifeboat, our man does not hesitate to take on the job. "In the Coast Guard they say you have to go out," he says stoically. "They don't say you have to come back in."
The heart of "The Finest Hours" cuts back and forth between Bernie and his crew and Sybert and his men, all desperately trying to stay alive and afloat in ferocious waves (especially effective in the film's 3-D version) that would as soon kill you as look at you.
Though the film involved a number of writers (the script was written by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson, based on a book of the same name by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias), it is the physical reproduction of that angry storm as shot by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe that makes the most lasting impression. Production designer Michael Corenblith created a set of the engine room of the Pendleton that was more than 40 feet tall and remarkably detailed.
The scenes of boats coping with all that howling weather were largely filmed in an enormous 80-foot-by-110-foot tank, which held 800,000 gallons of water. The actors were pummeled by rain towers, dump tanks and 200-horsepower fans creating ceaseless wind. The result couldn't be more convincing, and in a film like "The Finest Hours," that counts for a lot.
'The Finest Hours'
MPAA rating: PG-13, for intense sequences of peril
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Playing: In general release