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John Magaro hangs on for dear life amid choppy waters in The Finest Hours.

Don’t confuse The Finest Hours with These Final Hours. The latter is an Australian movie about the apocalypse that I reviewed last spring. The former is the Hollywood movie about a real-life rescue at sea that opens this week. There are relatively few films about the U.S. Coast Guard, so this one rules a narrow field. It’s certainly better than 2006’s The Guardian. If that sounds damning with faint praise, well, I’m afraid this movie doesn’t deserve much more.

Based on a book written by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias, the movie stars Chris Pine as Bernie Webber, a USCG boatswain’s mate first class who is assigned to Station Chatham, Mass., in February 1952. When a nor’easter strikes the New England coast, the oil tanker S.S. Pendleton breaks in half, with 33 crew members trapped in the ship’s stern. While the Pendleton’s chief engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) tries to keep order among the survivors, the rest of the Coast Guard ships in the area are busy saving people from a different wreck in the blizzard. No one else can help the Pendleton, so Bernie carries out his orders and defies near-suicidal odds to take a crew of four on a 36-foot gas-powered lifeboat to rescue the men. One of his crew members (John Magaro) looks at their vessel and says, “Please tell me we’re takin’ that boat to a bigger boat.”

The biggest problem here is the movie’s complete ineptitude when it comes to dealing with human beings. Bernie is a cardboard hero whose resolve never wavers except when he’s trying to ask a girl out on a date. (This trait is never explained, by the way, and Pine is pretty much the wrong actor to cast in a role like that.) His relationship with his fiancée (Holliday Grainger) exists solely so she can shed pretty tears while he’s out risking his life. Bernie’s determination is supposed to be fueled by his failure to save eight wrecked sailors a few years back, but for all the emotional weight this provides, he may as well be motivated by the prospect of rescuing a cute dog. None of the other crew members (who are played by Ben Foster and Kyle Gallner) comes across distinctly, and the only actor who shows any trace of a personality is Abraham Benrubi as the Pendleton’s show tune-singing cook. You could skip the entire first hour of this 117-minute film and not miss anything important. That is fatal.

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The film picks up only when the weather turns. Seeing this movie on the big screen is pretty much the only way to appreciate the scale of the gale that the men are facing. As the Coast Guard lifeboat approaches Chatham’s bar, Bernie has to maneuver frantically to keep from capsizing under waves that submerge the boat and then toss it in the air — at one point, one of his crew is thrown completely free of the boat and is fortunate to land back on the bow instead of in the water. On the Pendleton, director Craig Gillespie keeps an eye on the crew’s efforts as they work to keep the stern section afloat, and he executes one bravura shot with various sailors relaying weather information from the ship’s deck to the engine room deep below. When it comes to extended depictions of a life-threatening storm at sea, we haven’t seen a Hollywood movie this successful since The Perfect Storm 15 years ago.

As a survival story, this movie does all right, even if it has considerably less impact than the recent The Martian. However, from another viewpoint, it’s also quite depressing. Gillespie made Lars and the Real Girl seven years ago, and though I wasn’t a big fan of that cracked love story, whatever artistic promise he showed there has leaked away in the years since. Both here and in his casually racist 2014 baseball drama Million Dollar Arm, his personality has been utterly subsumed into the Disney house style. The mostly anonymous The Finest Hours is poor recompense for that.

[box_info]The Finest Hours
Starring Chris Pine and Casey Affleck. Directed by Craig Gillespie. Written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson, based on Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias’ book. Rated PG-13.[/box_info]

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