Lawrence Toppman

‘The Finest Hours’: Melodrama to the satisfying max

The chief engineer of a broken tanker (Casey Affleck, center) tries to keep it afloat until rescue comes in “The Finest Hours.”
The chief engineer of a broken tanker (Casey Affleck, center) tries to keep it afloat until rescue comes in “The Finest Hours.”

The rescue crew has no compass. Skyscraper waves toss their small boat as a terrier does a rat. Night settles down over them like a cold black blanket, interrupted by drifts of snow. Four Coast Guardsmen of varying experience search the waters off Massachusetts for the remaining half of the Pendleton, a broken oil tanker whose front section has already gone to the ocean floor.

Yet every time you’re tempted to mutter, “Oh, come on,” disbelief gets dispelled. From the first gentle meeting of its hero and heroine to the last line of dialogue, “The Finest Hours” executes all the traditional moves beautifully.

Writers Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, who adapted the book by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias, follow a heroic template carefully.

Brave, soft-spoken Bernie (Chris Pine) has to make this rescue succeed to atone for the time he couldn’t save townsmen stranded in a previous storm. Miriam, his strong-willed fiancée, unknowingly befriends the widow of the man Bernie couldn’t save and thinks of a crucial (if obvious) way to help her man get back to port.

The new head of the Guard post (Eric Bana) comes from the South, doesn’t understand local waters and can’t be trusted to make smart decisions. Meanwhile, Bernie’s cynical second-in-command (Ben Foster) keeps second-guessing him. And the loner Pendleton engineer hardly anyone likes (well-cast Casey Affleck) may have the secret to delaying the tanker’s death.

Even the dialogue sounds like it came from a screenwriting text. “In the Coast Guard, they say you have to go out,” says Bernie of his dangerous mission. “They don’t say you have to come back in.” When one character in peril promises another, “Just do what I do, and you’ll be safe,” good things are not about to ensue.

Yet you can’t smile at this stuff too long, when director Craig Gillespie tightens the tension so carefully.

No one watching his “Million Dollar Arm” or “Fright Night” would’ve imagined him at the helm of a large, effects-driven movie. But editor Tatiana S. Riegel and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (who both did “Fright Night”) delineate each crashing wave and crushing timber aboard the Pendleton. Terrors that could become monotonous remain distinct and unsettling.

Except for Foster, who was born in Boston, accents vary in quality. Grainger, an unfamiliar but compelling English actress, wisely becomes generically and convincingly American. Bana struggles to overlay his Australian sound with Southern molasses.

Pine’s accent comes and goes, but he gives a terrific performance. He broke through as brash, “I may not be right but I’m never wrong” Captain Kirk in the “Star Trek” reboot; watching him fully inhabit a humble character reminds us how versatile he can be.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘The Finest Hours’

Cast: Chris Pine, Holliday Grainger, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Eric Bana.

Director: Craig Gillespie.

Length: 117 minutes.

Rating: PG-13 (intense sequences of peril).