IN THE HEART OF THE SEA Movie Review – Moby 1, Whalers 0
Ron Howard just might be the most commercially successful actor-turned-director. His longevity is practically second to none, moving from child star in the ’60s, teen star in the ’70s, and finally a Hollywood director from mid-’80s through the present, winning an Academy Award for Best Director more than a decade ago for A Beautiful Mind. Commercial success, of course, doesn’t necessarily correlate to artistic or aesthetic success. Long ago, Howard found a sweet spot in Hollywood, making mid-to-high budget films with built-in, four-quadrant appeal and directing clearly defined, straightforward, often simplistic narratives with minimal visual inventiveness or imagination. The Howard “style” is no style at all. It’s interchangeable with any number of competent, proficient directors currently working in Hollywood. What distinguishes Howard from other directors isn’t style or anything approaching an auteurist vision, but a canny ability to pick and choose mainstream projects that – however temporarily – resonate sufficiently with audiences to turn into box-office hits. His latest film, In the Heart of the Sea, an adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s bestseller, “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,” suggests otherwise, however.
Working from a script credited to Charles Leavitt (two other writers, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver receive co-story credit), Howard makes the unfortunate, ill-conceived decision to not only bookend the sinking of the whale ship Essex by a mammoth whale and the harrowing tale of the rapidly dwindling survivors with a fictional all-night confessional between one of the survivors, Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson, two decades too old for the role), and author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), who used the tragic story of the Essex of the basis for his Great American Novel, “Moby Dick.” That conversation never happened. Melville relied on public reports, records, and a book written by another survivor, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), along with his own seafaring experiences. Here, however, the conversation between the two men repeatedly breaks into the action, disrupting whatever flow, momentum, or suspense had been built up to that point (and ever subsequent point). Arguably, those breaks serve a different, extra-filmic rationale: To retain In the Heart of the Sea’s precious PG-13 rating when the survivors’ story turns to cannibalism. That still doesn’t make it any less ill-conceived or poorly executed, of course.
As a novice, fourteen-year-old seaman making his first voyage on a whaling ship, Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland, the once and future Peter Parker/Spider-Man), learns the ropes (sometimes literally), swabs the decks (again, literally), gets seasick during a rough night, and picks up the manliest of manly cues from Chase, the Essex’s first mate and an ultra-experienced whaler, while observing the ongoing conflict between Chase and the Essex’s new, untried, insecure captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). Pollard comes from a long line of wealthy Nantucket whalers (Chase doesn’t), making his unearned rise to the captaincy of the Essex a constant, repeated sore point between the two men. The conflict rears its first of many heads during a heavy storm that causes substantial damage. Pollard rejects Chase’s sound advice out of pride and hubris and steers the Essex too close to the storm. It’s not the last time the two men find themselves at odds, but they eventually put aside their differences to pursue the whale oil that’s the singular, profit-making purpose of their months-long voyage. Commerce and profit, after all, trumps all (a welcome, if muted critique, it should be added).
When we finally encounter the gigantic, bleached-toned whale that wrecks the Essex, it’s a bit of a disappointment, not due to his size or level of detail, but because the whale is nothing more (and often much less) than the sum of the digital wizardry needed to turn it from ones and zeroes into a semi-realized, not quite fearsome creation. The constant cuts from the whale ship (and the men on the whale ship) and the whale never quite seem to fill the same continuous or contiguous space. That’s either a failure on Howard’s part or his visual effects team (or more likely, both). Then the whale does what whales only do in novels and not in the real world (contrary to the breathless TV ads proclaiming otherwise): It pursues the men post-sinking as they struggle to survive with minimal supplies in tiny, crowded whale boats. Except, of course, that’s Melville’s metaphorical whale, not the real one. Not that there’s anything wrong with fictionalizing history, but claiming that fictionalization as objective truth is another matter.
The whale’s revenge-fueled pursuit of its onetime hunters, however, does serve a narrative purpose: Once the Essex slips under the Pacific Ocean for the last, final time, whatever drama the story of the Essex implicitly contained sinks along with it. The men drift in the whale boats, thousands of miles from the equivalent of civilization. Some live, most die (the latter mostly of the anonymous crewmen variety) while the survivors lose serious weight (all in the name of commercial art, apparently), but to little emotional effect. By then, it’s just a matter of hanging with the survivors until they’re rescued followed by the multiple epilogue problem endemic to historical Hollywood dramas (one epilogue should be more than sufficient).