Saturday, January 30, 2016

Watership Down: THE FINEST HOURS

Like a Norman Rockwell painting poured over The Perfect Storm, The Finest Hours is a sturdy, old-fashioned picture. Based on the true story of a 1952 Coast Guard rescue of a tanker split in two by horrendous winter weather, the film tells its tale in a rather conventional way. We meet a stubborn do-gooder guardsman (Chris Pine) and the sweet girl (Holliday Grainger) who’d like to marry him. Then the storm hits, the tanker is in trouble, and the man’s commanding officer (Eric Bana) sends him out on a small boat with a small crew (Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner, and John Magaro) to do the impossible. Their boat is tossed about by the waves and winds, equipment malfunctions, and the sun sets. Meanwhile, the men on the tanker (over 30 of them, including Casey Affleck and John Ortiz) are struggling to stay afloat, with no way to make contact, and thus no way of knowing if help is even on the way. It’s a simple story, but the story is simply engaging.

A live action Disney movie, it looks and feels more or less like it would if the company made it in 1956, 66, 76, 86, 96, or 2006, modern tech aside. There’s a fine layer of timeless Hollywood gloss over it, and a proficient element of spectacle as special effects buffet the boats out in the storm and softly falling snow coats the coast in a sparkling snow globe lighthouse look. And in the midst of this is a dependable cast playing people who are largely identifiable types, but given just enough personality and interior lives for rooting interest beyond making it out alive, and to suggest a reality beyond the big studio lights on the sets and CG. The situation is inherently dramatic – true life-or-death stakes, with survival hinging on how well these people can do their jobs, and on the whims of nature. The screenplay (by The Fighter’s Eric Johnson, Scott Silver, and Paul Tamasy) is smart not to undercut the proceedings. It crests perilous waves of cliché to find clear sailing to the heartstrings.

It borders on corny, but it never quite gets there, kept afloat by its forward momentum and reliably sturdy construction. Who’d have thought Craig Gillespie, the director of the Ryan-Gosling-in-love-with-a-RealDoll movie Lars and the Real Girl and the fun Fright Night remake, would turn into a decent helmer for Disney based-on-a-true-story fare? With Finest Hours he improves on his dull sports movie Million Dollar Arm, this time telling an interesting and compelling narrative with good clarity for its process and perspective. We follow each boat’s progress through the storm, cutting between them, and some judicious glimpses of those fretting on the shore, hoping against hope that their guys will make it back alive. There’s a chaste romance at stake, and a couple dozen souls stranded in a rapidly failing craft. That’s plenty heart-tugging drama to get invested in, and a cast willing to play it earnestly.

The sequences on the listing half-tanker are the strongest, Javier Aguirresarobe’s camera and Tatiana S. Riegel’s editing crisply following a committed cast of character actors chewing on accents and sloshing around a convincingly dangerous waterlogged set, coming to terms with the long odds confronting them. The film is full of towering waves, howling winds, groaning bulkheads, straining chains, swinging beams, straining rudders, whirring propellers, and spasms of sparks and smoke. Gillespie focuses on these tactile details, in sharp, routine frames constructed to show off the heroic efforts taken by various crewmembers to save as many lives as they can. It’s a film that feels the movement of the bobbing waves, the strain on an engine as a boat takes on weight, and the taxing whir of overpowered pumps slowly letting water creep higher up the engine room. It’s an engaging film of sturdy craftsmanship, the sort of feel-good inspirational fact-based family film I’m glad Disney hasn’t entirely given up on making in the shadow of their mega-blockbuster fantasies.

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