Ordinary men doing extraordinary things

Chris Pine plays the wide-eyed, straightforward hero in The Finest Hours.
Chris Pine plays the wide-eyed, straightforward hero in The Finest Hours.PHOTO: WALT DISNEY COMPANY

In The Finest Hours, Chris Pine plays a captain who uses his wits and a wooden boat to rescue 32 men in a violent storm

If you are tired of your cinematic heroes being dark, angsty and complicated, The Finest Hours - the true story of a daring 1950s rescue at sea - may be the perfect movie for you.

So says its leading man Chris Pine, 35, who plays Coast Guard captain Bernie Webber in the Disney action drama, now showing in Singapore cinemas.

In the film, which co-stars Casey Affleck, Eric Bana and Ben Foster, Webber and his crew use nothing but their wits and a small wooden boat to rescue the men on a massive oil tanker that had split apart in a violent storm off Massachusetts.

The actor, best known as Captain Kirk from the 2009 and 2013 Star Trek movies, says he was drawn to the screenplay because Webber and the other characters were blissfully straightforward, compared to the protagonists you typically see at the movies these days.

"It was a script that I really loved. It was something that felt like it came from a different time, like a 1950s studio picture," he tells The Straits Times and other press in Los Angeles.

"I loved the easy, uncomplicated romance of it and that it was this uncomplicated thriller about normal men doing extraordinary things."

Simplicity is also what drew him to the story's portrayal of the late Webber who, on Feb 18, 1952, led what is considered the greatest small-boat rescue in US Coast Guard history, saving the crew of the sinking SS Pendleton from perishing in frigid waters.

"I love the character of Bernie, who's this wide-eyed, non-hard- edged hero.

"Nowadays, everything is brooding. Even James Bond, for god's sake, is brooding. There's a simple elegance to this story that was without the usual 2016 Freudian complications that seem to bog everything down.

"Things are so heavy and dark in the world, it's kind of nice to have some escapism, I think," says Pine, who also starred in the 2014 movies Horrible Bosses 2, a comedy, and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, an action thriller.

Telling the Coast Guard rescue story was no picnic, though.

It was a wet, cold and stomach- churning shoot for the cast, with Pine and Foster grimacing as they remember being tossed about like sodden ragdolls on the swaying mechanised platforms that doubled for the vessels on set.

But they are quick to point out that this was nothing compared to what the real men involved went through in 1952, when Webber and his men risked their lives by heading out to stormy seas in their 36-foot wooden motor lifeboat.

Foster, 35, and Pine were just play-acting after all.

"The men and women that we are representing, that's a noble profession. And the privilege and challenge for us is trying to represent that spirit and value system respectfully," says Foster, who starred in Lone Survivor (2013).

Any hardships they endured while filming served only to enhance their portrayal, says Pine, who will reprise his role as Captain Kirk in Star Trek later this year.

"We spent some time with the Coast Guard here in Los Angeles and also in Chatham where this took place. Then I spent a lot of time with the guys on set - and when you're under duress like that, as cinematic and non-scary as it is, it's still wet and cold and miserable.

"What's nice about the experience is that it focuses you and all you can really pay attention to are the guys next to you, the machinery underneath you and the job at hand. And perhaps that's the only connective tissue between ourselves and the men that actually went through it."

Merely playing a Coast Guardsman in the film has shattered any illusions that the actors could do what they do in real life, he adds.

"I have no desire to join the Coast Guard," he says drily. "I think it's extremely difficult and not in my wheelhouse."

He did learn a thing or two about seafaring while working on the movie, though - specifically, how you should not underestimate a modest old-school wooden vessel.

"It's interesting that a lot of old sea-hands will say that wooden- hulled boats are sturdier and have been around a lot longer than the steel contraptions we have now.

"In fact, on that night, a four- storey steel tanker split in half and this little wooden boat was able to navigate 70-foot seas and come back with 32 men on board - something that was capable of carrying only 12.

"So really, what I was surprised by was that the tools you have are the boat, your steering wheel with a compass that's strapped next to it and a light. And that's it. There's no radar or self-levelling mechanisms, there's nothing, it's just so simple and so scary.

"The skill of Bernie is something that is beyond my comprehension."

•The Finest Hours is showing in Singapore cinemas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 19, 2016, with the headline 'Ordinary men doing extraordinary things'. Print Edition | Subscribe