Heroes don’t always wear capes or fly through the air. This Disney production tells the story of an ordinary guy who led three fellow Coast Guard men on a perilous mission in 1952 that is still considered a history-making event. The movie works because the leading character (well played by Chris Pine) doesn’t see himself as heroic. Neither does his counterpart, a dedicated engineer (nicely underplayed by Casey Affleck) who tries to find a way to keep his badly damaged oil tanker from sinking off the coast of Massachusetts in the midst of a ferocious storm.
The Finest Hours could have easily taken the path of a stoic flag-waver. Instead, it adroitly weaves a personal, human story into the fabric of a massive action movie. It opens with Pine embarking on a blind date with a telephone switchboard operator he has spoken to but never seen (Holliday Grainger), and uses their story as the through-line for the rest of its narrative. Along the way we get a sense of their tight-knit waterfront community, the wounds that still remain from an earlier disaster, the protocol of the modest Coast Guard station, and the relationship of our protagonist with his comrades in what some consider to be a suicide mission (including a somewhat sardonic seaman played by Ben Foster).
The screenplay, credited to Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, & Eric Johnson (based on a book by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias) is directed with admirable restraint by Craig Gillespie, who first came to our attention with the sleeper Lars and the Real Girl and more recently piloted Disney’s Million Dollar Arm.
His approach is paralleled by the sincere performances, which are completely devoid of irony or distance. They keep The Finest Hours on track even when it threatens to teeter into corniness. That, and the genuinely spectacular action sequences that compare to any major film you care to name—including Star Wars. While much of the action at sea involves complex CGI work, a great deal of the film was shot on practical sets provided by production designer Michael Corenblith, including the inside of the tanker’s engine room, which was 45 feet tall and built entirely of steel!
The Finest Hours may be too square for some viewers, but I found it exciting and entertaining. Incidentally, although it wasn’t filmed in 3-D but converted in post-production, its use is surprisingly effective and I would recommend seeing it that way if you can.