Waves of water and nostalgia wash over the drenched and drippy "The Finest Hours," a Norman Rockwell painting tossed into stormy CGI seas.
The disaster drama, directed by Craig Gillespie ("Lars and the Real Girl," "Million Dollar Arm"), is a movie of curious contrasts: an unabashedly old-fashioned and overwhelmingly vanilla tale of awe-shucks-ing, double-dating 1950s seamen, told with the modern 3-D effects of your average end-of-the-world movie.
It's about the 1952 rescue mission — a true story — of a four-man boat of Coast Guardsmen sent from Cape Cod to save the crew of the USS Pendleton, an oil tanker that a brutal winter storm has broken in half off the coast of Nantucket.
"The Finest Hours" provides more working-class New Englanders bobbing in churning nor'easter currents for those who have been patiently waiting for another wave to catch since 2000's "The Perfect Storm." Here again is that formula of maritime adventure and Massachusetts accents (some believable, some that sink).
This one has an Affleck. Playing the assistant engineer Ray Sybert on the Pendleton is Casey Affleck, who moodily skulks over pipes and valves in the engine room for much of the film. More knowing than his fellow shipmen, he attempts to convince them how to steer what's left of the tanker to safety.
On land is Chris Pine's Bernie Webber, a timid, do-gooding Guardsman stationed in Chatham. The setting could hardly be more innocent; early scenes show Bernie's courtship of the red-haired Miriam (the radiant Holliday Grainger): seeds of sentimentality to fuel the action to come.
It's just when they're making their wedding plans that the storm sets in, news of the tanker's distress spreads and Eric Bana's ill-informed commanding officer dispatches Bernie into the freezing surf to search for survivors. His most notable companion is a near-silent sailor played by the arresting Ben Foster, who appears to have made a bet to say as few words as possible throughout the film. The central foe to the rescue is the crushing waves at the sand bar ("Tha Bahhh") that Bernie must miraculously navigate.
Parallels between Bernie and Ray mount as the film toggles between them; both are intelligent workers — card-carrying members of "the greatest generation" — thrown into impossible situations by foolhardy supervisors. With wet bangs hanging over their determined faces, they brave the storm with ingenuity and gumption, gritting their way through sheets of cold rain.
"The Finest Hours," written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson, has the feeling of a movie that's been stripped down to its bare clichés. That's not an altogether bad thing. The film's lean, classical simplicity is also its greatest asset. Gillespie's movie lacks even the slightest pretension and features only the occasional flourish.
It's a smooth-sailing ship without leaky holes, yet not much inspiration to fill its sails, either.
What: "The Finest Hours." Directed by Craig Gillespie. A Walt Disney Co. release
Star rating (out of four): •
With: Casey Affleck, Chris Pine, Holliday Grainger, Eric Bana, Ben Foster
MPAA rating: PG-13 for "intense sequences of peril"
Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes
At: Berkshire Mall Cinema 10 (Lanesborough) and North Adams Movieplex 8