Audiences might feel the urge to clap as Coast Guard drama “The Finest Hours” draws to a close, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. The story of a daring rescue attempt after an oil tanker split in half during a blizzard in 1952 certainly warrants such a reaction.
But make no mistake, you are clapping for the real individuals, not the actors and filmmakers who brought the tale to life. Boatswains Mate First Class Bernie Webber deserves applause – star Chris Pine and company do not.
That’s not to say “The Finest Hours” is a dud; it’s a sturdy, handsomely mounted telling of a pretty incredible story. But it does not resist the schmaltz that often accompanies such straight-from-history narratives, and that grows tiresome.
Indeed, “The Finest Hours” is an overlong, paint-by-numbers January release full of B-team stars – Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Eric Bana – and overseen by a ho-hum director, Craig Gillespie. (His resume includes dreary Ryan Gosling vehicle “Lars and the Real Girl” and tiresome Jon Hamm baseball drama “Million Dollar Arm.”)
However, the film offers some undeniable excitement and a few memorable moments, along with more Massachusetts accents than any film this side of “Black Mass.” “Hours” offers solid entertainment for families who have already seen “The Force Awakens” four times.
Opening with a dishwater-dull flashback to the first face-to-face meeting of Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) and eventual fiancée Miriam (a fine Holliday Grainger), we soon cut to everyday life at a Coast Guard station off the coast of Cape Cod in February 1952.
Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (a miscast, bored Bana) oversees a team that includes Webber and grumpy Seaman Richard Livesey (Foster). There’s tension in the air, as Webber still hears whispers about a past failed rescue attempt.
Meanwhile, oil tanker the SS Pendleton is experiencing the effects of an awful blizzard, and soon the unthinkable happens – the tanker literally splits in half. Remarkably, the Pendleton is one of two tankers that split during the storm.
The film’s initially sleepy narrative wakes up once we meet the crew of the Pendleton, led by Affleck’s Ray Sybert. The star of “Gone Baby Gone” is wonderfully cast as a quiet, determined crewman. Affleck’s sunken eyes and taciturn demeanor is just right, and Sybert instantly becomes the most involving character onscreen.
The more grim the men’s situation becomes, the more gripping the film’s Pendleton scenes become. This also means our interest lags every time we return to land, and even after Webber begins the dangerous attempt at heading out to sea to rescue the men.
That is not the fault of Pine or Foster, as both actors are believable, if one-note. The problem is their effects-laden rescue attempt feels rote – we’ve seen these CGI waves many, many times before. This is also true of Miriam’s worried efforts back on dry land.
Thanks to the long search for the Pendleton, the film is at least 20 minutes too long. Yet the final stretch is genuinely thrilling, and makes up for many of the slower, more mawkish moments.
The issues that keep “The Finest Hours” from being a great film are prevalent, but do not take away from its successes. It’s a worthy effort, and a fine reminder of the often forgotten heroes of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Still, I found myself thinking that the real Bernie Webber was likely a far more complex, interesting individual than the one onscreen. Perhaps a documentary on the SS Pendleton rescue would paint a more memorable picture.
“The Finest Hours”
Starring: Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Eric Bana
Director: Craig Gillespie
Running time: 117 minutes
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of peril
The lowdown: The Coast Guard makes a daring rescue attempt off the coast of Cape Cod after a pair of oil tankers are destroyed during a blizzard in 1952.