If you ever find yourself stranded at sea aboard an oil tanker that’s been split in two by a nor’easter, Chris Pine is the guy you want showing up in the rescue boat. Stalwart, resourceful and as lustrously handsome as a comic-book football hero, Pine anchors The Finest Hours, directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), the story of a near miraculous Coast Guard rescue that took place just off Cape Cod in 1952.
A vicious storm had split the S.S. Pendleton in half like a toy: in the bow, the captain and seven crew members died, but under the guidance of chief engineer Raymond Sybert (played by Casey Affleck), more than 30 crewmen managed to survive in the stern, a ragged, crippled half-ship lurching and listing in the perilous waters. Pine plays coxswain Bernie Webber, stationed in Chatham, Mass., who gathered a volunteer group of three in an impossibly small motorized wooden lifeboat and headed out to sea in the thick of the storm. Thanks to a combination of perseverance, seamanship and luck–and without a compass, which broke en route–they found the truncated ship and saved 32 of the 33 crewmen.
The Coast Guard considers the Pendleton rescue the most daring in its history, and The Finest Hours–adapted from the 2009 book of the same name by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Tougias–does its damnedest to live up to the legend. If the effects in The Finest Hours are intense in places, they also lack poetry: their painstaking CGI realism doesn’t necessarily make them more realistic, just more overwhelming. In the end, the actors’ faces and voices tell us more about the frailty of humankind than a bunch of fake waves do.
Affleck’s Sybert is the seaman nobody likes–his social awkwardness is written right into the flat tunelessness of his voice, yet he’s the one who best understands the fragile relationship between his vessel and the threatening seas. And if all else fails, you can rely on Pine. Navigating that seemingly helpless little boat, squinting into the driving snow and more than once nearly falling victim to the ocean’s mighty maw, he’s the movie’s finest special effect–not because he plays Webber as mindlessly brave but because he lets us see how scared he is.
This appears in the February 08, 2016 issue of TIME.