Is there a more profitable moviemaking model than Disney’s? They invest millions recycling time-worn formulas, playing it safe as their coffers overflow. Since acquiring Marvel Studios, they’ve essentially made the same superhero movie again and again; after a dozen comic book-based pictures, the public’s appetite for these reheated leftovers doesn’t appear to be waning. And when Disney purchased Lucasfilm from George Lucas for an unprecedented $4.1 billion, they announced a third trilogy of Star Wars films. The first, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is practically a remake of the 1977 film that launched Lucas’ space-faring fantasy saga. It’s also very quickly becoming the highest-grossing movie in U.S. history—and with a new adventure set in that galaxy far, far away scheduled to open annually from now until the end of our galaxy, Disney plans to keep feeding audiences cinematic comfort food they’ll happily consume.
This isn’t to say that the Mouse House doesn’t ever take risks, and it can afford to write off $200 million megaflops like 2013’s The Lone Ranger and this past summer’s Tomorrowland while producing modestly budgeted, feel-good family dramas like the ones Uncle Walt used to make. Take Million Dollar Arm, Craig Gillespie’s 2014 inspirational baseball drama about a sports agent recruiting players in Mumbai. Based on fact, it was a modern swing at Disney’s old sports movie formula, and successful enough to reserve the 48-year-old Aussie another spot in the director’s chair for The Finest Hours, his latest ripped-from-real-life tale.
Based on Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman’s 2010 nonfiction book, The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue, the overly earnest screenplay by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson (who last collaborated on 2010’s The Fighter) focuses on just one piece of that rescue: the one with the most survivors. This is PG-13-rated entertainment meant to be enjoyed by most of the family, after all.
Like Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, this is a re-creation of historical events that’s more interested in the men who saved lives than those who tragically lost theirs—but without the political baggage, made by a director capable of presenting clean, cohesive action.
On Feb. 18, 1952, two unaffiliated T2 oil tankers sailing off the coast of Cape Cod—the SS Fort Mercer and the SS Pendleton—were battered by a raging nor’easter, and each broke in half. While Tougias and Sherman recounted a tale of four separate search and rescue efforts, the movie’s screenwriters focus on a single mission: rescuing the men trapped inside the listing stern of the Pendleton.
Most rescue crews have already been dispatched to deal with the Fort Mercer when word of the Pendleton disaster reaches Chatham Coast Guard station chief Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana, given very little to do other than speak in a slight Southern drawl). An outsider in this close-knit community, he commands four of his men to take a 36-foot-long motorized lifeboat out to the survivors of the Pendleton in what could easily be a suicide mission. The tiny wooden craft is helmed by Bernie Webber (Chris Pine, the rebooted Star Trek’s Capt. Kirk), a by-the-book captain, and his inexperienced crew—friend Richie Livesey (Ben Foster), engineman Andy Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner) and new recruit Ervin Maske (John Magaro).
Prior to presenting any heroics, however, the film’s first act introduces Bernie as he sheepishly stumbles his way through a blind date with Miriam (a period-perfect Holliday Grainger from Showtime’s The Borgias), who has to remind him how handsome he is. This underlines one of the film’s failings: Gillespie has cast one of our most charming young actors, only to have Pine hamstring his best qualities by hiding behind timid affectations.
Looking past the corny, unnecessary love story, Falmouth-born, Cambridge-raised Casey Affleck is a big plus as Ray Sybert, who becomes the de facto captain of what’s left of the Pendleton as he formulates a plan to keep his 32 crewmates alive. Mirroring Bernie, Ray’s unsure of himself, but gains the respect of his men due to heroic actions in the face of insurmountable odds…or are they?
The script constantly reminds us that actions are impossible…until they aren’t. Bernie can’t get his small crew out of Chatham’s harbor and over crushing waves…until he does. Without a compass, they’ll never locate the Pendleton…until they do. They’ll never be able to collect survivors that number three times their boat’s capacity…until, well, they do.
“We all live, or we all die,” Bernie tells the shivering men who overload his boat, as Chatham residents await them at a shore they’re not certain can be reached. With an ending as predictable as any Marvel movie, The Finest Hours’ real-life heroes are nevertheless refreshingly human; lacking superpowers, these aren’t Secret Soldiers, but simply men who did what must be done. With lives on the line, playing it safe was never an option.
The Finest Hours **1/2
Starring Chris Pine, Holliday Grainger, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner, John Magaro, Beau Knapp, Graham McTavish, Abraham Benrubi, Keiynan Lonsdale, John Ortiz, Josh Stewart, Matthew Maher, Rachel Brosnahan, Alexander Cook, Michael Raymond-James and Eric Bana. Written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, based on a book by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman. Directed by Craig Gillespie. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.