‘The Finest Hours’: Rescuers heroic, but the script is all wet

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Props to the cast of “The Finest Hours,” most of whom spend about three-quarters of their onscreen time soaking wet.

Yeah yeah yeah — they’re pampered actors and they’re really not at risk and no doubt there were fluffy warm towels and changes of clothes waiting for them at the end of the day, but still. These guys are so thoroughly drenched I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a couple of them had shrunk by an inch by the end of filming.

If only “The Finest Hours” had a screenplay worthy of the heroics depicted here, and a director who could have resisted wave after wave of schmaltz and melodrama.

Though based on true events, “The Finest Hours” plays like a hokey, cornball 1950s-era drama filled with stock characters, and weakened by a sappy ending so over the top it actually dilutes the impact of what many call the greatest small-boat rescue mission in Coast Guard history.

At first the tone of the film dovetails nicely with the era depicted. It’s 1951, and in a sweet, soft-focus prologue, we meet Chris Pine’s Bernie Webber, a movie-star handsome but almost painfully shy petty officer stationed at the U.S. Coast Guard station in Chatham, Massachusetts, who strikes up a romance with the beautiful and plucky Miriam (Holliday Grainger), who’s such a independent free spirit she’s the one who eventually pops the question to Bernie.

(Like most of the other Coast Guard sailors, Bernie is a local. And, like most of the other cast members, Pine goes clam-chowder thick with the New England accent. The Massachusetts-born Casey Affleck actually has the least jarring accent in the movie.)

Some of the crusty old fishermen who keep their heavy slickers on even when they’re downing pints at the local pub, and many of Bernie’s fellow sailors, treat Bernie like a pariah. You see, there was a tragedy at sea the year before, and though Bernie and his crew tried to overcome the rough seas on a rescue mission, they failed — and some felt Bernie should have tried A LAWT HAH-DUH.

Cut to the night of Feb. 18, 1952, when a nor’easter of monstrous proportions struck the waters off the coast of Massachusetts, tearing not one but two oil tankers in half. Thinking there was only one tanker in peril, the Coast Guard sent most of its resources to the SS Fort Mercer.

By the time the Coast Guard realized the Pendleton had also been ripped in two, it was left to Bernie and three crew members — Coast Guarders Andy Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner) and Richard Livesey (Ben Foster) and Navy man Ervin Maske (John Magaro) — to man a small Coast Guard motorboat on a seemingly impossible mission to locate the Pendleton and rescue all hands on deck.

For the bulk of the journey, “The Finest Hours” follows three paths: Bernie and his crew facing ferocious waves, the loss of their compass and a mission that feels increasingly suicidal with the passing minutes; Pendleton chief engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) devising ingenious methods to keep what’s rest of the ship afloat while attempting to diffuse internal tensions among the crew, and Miriam’s plight back home, as she awaits word of Bernie’s fate.

Bernie’s quest carries the most tension and dramatic weight. The special effects are solid, but the post-production 3-D job does nothing to enhance the experience.

Casey Affleck, a fine actor, makes the unfortunate choice of playing Ray as a brooding, mumbling oddball who actually uses a hard-boiled egg to demonstrate one of his so-crazy-it-just-might-work ideas. It doesn’t help that the Pendleton is staffed with easy clichés, from the heavyset cook who sings in times of trouble to the nervous apprentice to the hothead contrarian who refuses to respect Ray, even though they’d all be dead if they listened to hothead contrarian’s big ideas.

Meanwhile, the landlocked scenes are the cheesiest of all. When Miriam storms into the Coast Guard headquarters and demands Chief Warrant Officer Cluff (Eric Bana, sporting an embarrassing Southern accent), who’s not from these parts, bring her fiancé home, it’s just ridiculous. Later, when the townsfolk gather to monitor the radio and bring in potluck dinners, even overheard snippets of conversation are so heavy-handed they’re almost chuckle-inducing.

“The Finest Hours” feels stitched together. None of the three main plot lines is particularly powerful or moving. We’re never invested in these characters the way we were with, say, the leads in “The Perfect Storm.” The heroism of that small-boat crew from 1952 deserves a special film. This is not it.

[s3r star=2/4]

Disney presents a film directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson. Running time: 114 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of peril). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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