In the Heart of the Sea: To the Last I Grapple with Thee, by David Bax
Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea recounts the true story of the whaleship Essex, which was rammed by a sperm whale and sank, serving as partial inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. That’s an intriguing leaping-off point but, apparently, Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt (adapting Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 nonfiction book of the same name) were content to dig no deeper than their logline. You’re likely to leave the theater thinking nothing more than, “Well, now I know the true story of the whaleship Essex, which partially inspired Moby Dick!”
The film imagines up a fictional framing story, in which Melville (Ben Whishaw) visits a man named Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), in 1850. Thirty years after the sinking of the Essex, Nickerson is the only surviving survivor, having been a teenaged boy (Tom Holland) on his first whaling trip at the time. From there, Howard takes us back to the voyage, where the blue blooded, first time Captain George Pollard, Jr. (Benjamin Walker) and his seasoned, headstrong commoner of a first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), took the ship thousands of miles from land in desperation to fill their hull with whale oil and fulfill their contracts.
Nickerson the elder proclaims that the story of the Essex is the story of the two men and their battle of wills, which is cripplingly misleading to the viewer. Other than some disagreements near the beginning that stem from class assumptions and Chase having been passed over for a captaincy in favor of the man from a wealthy family, every potentially juicy bit of acrimony is tossed overboard once the whale strikes the ship. Pollard is diminished from co-lead status to just another member of the crew (despite Walker’s strong performance) and the audience never gets the philosophical mano a mano they were promised.
That’s just one example, in fact, of how detrimental the framing narrative is to the rest of the film. Its removal could only strengthen the overall quality. Its uselessness is illustrated almost immediately; there’s probably about fifteen minutes of flashback material that can’t possibly be part of the story old Nickerson is telling because young Nickerson hasn’t even shown up yet. Why would he know or care to impart the details of Chase’s farewell to his wife or Pollard’s to his father? The dialogue in the 1850 section doesn’t exactly smooth things over either. It seems to be coming from another place altogether. Gleeson’s character becomes something like a local television horror movie host, introducing flashbacks with laughably portentous proclamations like, “…we sailed to the edge of sanity!”
In the Heart of the Sea’s best stuff comes from the repairing of Howard and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who teamed up on 2013’s Rush. Mantle made his name with the fast and loose Dogme 95 crew, shooting that movement’s best film, The Celebration. From there, he worked with nervy mavericks like Harmony Korine (Julien Donkey-Boy) and young hot shots like Danny Boyle (28 Days Later…). On paper, the duo of Mantle and an establishment journeyman like Howard would seem to clash. But Mantle injects kinetic energy into Howard’s classicist sweep, cutting the everyday CGI grandeur with ant’s-eye view shots of oars ripping through the water or sails whipping open from the masts.
As the men endure a shipwreck, starvation, infighting and hallucinations, the gargantuan whale that crushed the Essex seems to follow them. This is the hypothetical crux of the story – the inspiration for the novel we’ve all at least heard of, if not read – but the beast never persists in the mind the way it’s clearly meant to. How can we care about the whale when we don’t even care about the men he’s tormenting?