Warner Bros. (2015) 121 min. PG-13
Director: Ron Howard
Screenplay: Charles Leavitt; based on story by Rick Jaffa, Charles Leavitt & Amanda Silver & novel by Nathaniel Philbrick
Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle; Editing: Dan Hanley & Mike Hill
Production Design: Mark Tildesley; Set Decoration: Dominic Capon; Costumes: Julian Day; Score: Roque Baños
Stars: Chris Hemsworth (Owen Chase), Benjamin Walker (George Pollard), Cillian Murphy (Matthew Joy), Brendan Gleeson (old Thomas Nickerson), Ben Whishaw (Herman Melville), Tom Holland (young Thomas Nickerson), Frank Dillane (Owen Coffin), Michelle Fairley (Mrs. Nickerson)
The aged survivor of a maritime disaster, Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) recounts his tale of woe to a young Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw). When a boy (Tom Holland) in 1819 Nantucket he signed aboard the whale ship Essex, under the inexperienced command of George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker). Having been promised the post himself, resentful first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) has little respect for his captain, and the two men clash constantly over discipline and protocol.
During a hunt, the Essex is stove in by an enraged sperm whale and the survivors left to navigate a torturous trek back to the South American coast in three open whale boats. As the men face starvation, they’re forced to resort to cannibalism in order to survive. Only a few manage to make it back alive. As Nickerson’s story concludes, Melville begins penning his greatest novel with the immortal opening line “Call me Ishmael.”
And call me disappointed. The sinking of the Essex is a compelling story and could have made for a fantastic movie, but the script adaptation by Charles Leavitt, Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver doesn’t do full justice to Nathaniel Philbrick’s bestseller. Maybe I’d unfairly built this film up in my mind before ever seeing it because I wanted to like it so badly. Despite a stellar cast and handsome production values, it’s really just salty sentiments sprinkled atop hardtack. It’s second-run Ron Howard, to be classed with the director’s Rush, acceptably entertaining, conventional little pictures with delusions of grandeur, these aspirations unfortunately demanding the spectator judge them with a more discerning eye than necessary. Much as the movie Melville wants to set his novel in the grand tradition of American letters, Howard sees his film as being part of the classical cinematic cannon.
Having given the movies one of their most delightful sea tales with Splash eons ago, he now brings us one of the most unpleasant, though In the Heart of the Sea betrays some of the same childish wonder for the unfathomable mysteries of the briny deep, with talk of sea monsters and the depiction of the big white whale as a preternatural being. It recalls Life of Pi in these rare, mystical instances of wide-eyed wonder at all God’s creatures great and small. Howard also reworks the same men in peril premise he had in his Oscar-nominated Apollo 13. The castaways here are lost at sea rather than space, but the concept remains much the same, as we watch them cut adrift in a formerly enchanting alien environ that suddenly turns ominous and hostile toward them. In its dramatic essentials though, the movie begins as a reworking of Mutiny on the Bounty, with Chris Hemsworth cast in the Fletcher Christian part. Having played aristocratic race car driver James Hunt, who seemed kissed by the gods in Rush, the actor here swings to the opposite extreme as first mate Chase, a working class clod, but the camera seems just as fixated on his Teutonic hyper-masculinity. Tall as a wooden ship mast (insert your own ‘there once was a man from Nantucket…’ joke here), a halo effect is imparted upon his every shot, the sun dappled backlighting making him appear like a demi-god. Leavitt, who conceived Leonardo DiCaprio’s old-fashioned great white hunter in Blood Diamond as if he were Allan Quatermain, keeps trying to turn Hemsworth into an 18th century Thor, as captured in the glowing amber of green cabin boy Nickerson’s first full on man crush.
In his book Nathaniel Philbrick (named for Nathaniel Hawthorne the same great author Melville doesn’t believe he can measure up to in the movie) speculated the whale that stove in the Essex might have been spurred to attack by the rhythmic pounding of the hammer Chase uses to repair the hull of a capsized boat, mistaking it for the low frequency hum of another territorial male, but this isn’t made clear in the film. Instead we seem to be watching Thor’s hammer inciting the ire of an even bigger, more bullheaded brute intent on challenging him for dominance, which is I guess more or less the same difference. But the sense of heroism the movie wants to invest the Chase character with isn’t really suited to his seemingly recalcitrant nature or the desperation of the circumstances. Trying to cast the star’s role in this heroic light seems as blatantly self-serving as did the first-person narrative penned by the historical Chase for profit following his ordeal.
Resembling a more physically refined Eric Bana, with vague traces of Liam Neeson, Benjamin Walker looks to have been born to this era of stove pipe hats and high, standing collars which is probably why he made such a satisfactory Abraham Lincoln when hunting vampires instead of whales. He’s playing a blustery, self-important Capt. Bligh here, who tries to overcompensate for his lack of sea legs by lording it over his subordinate seamen. Possessing no sense of personal accountability, he refuses to take responsibility for his own incompetent decisions, shifting blame to others as he does after leading the ship directly into an approaching squall. He constantly needles and belittles Chase for being the son of a yeoman farmer, the equivalent of less than a gentleman to his narrow-minded way of thinking. Born a landlubber rather than into one of their best old whaling families renders outsider Chase suspect among such a close-knit community of Nantucket natives.
As it was with the British Navy, such select breeding is apparently the only qualification required to be appointed to the rank of sea captain of your own whaling vessel, while the more experienced first mate is passed over for promotion and exploited like a beast of burden, shouldering the brunt of duties on deck. Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Pollard’s cushy surroundings are held up in contrast to the more roughhewn experiences of Chase, who’s had to work twice as hard for everything he’s ever wrested from life. In a country founded upon the notion of rugged individualism, this can’t help but confer our instant respect upon the character. In the Heart of the Sea posits this underdog as a rugged he-man in contrast to Pollard’s pampered, inexperienced weakling so ill-equipped for this mission he can’t even go down with his own ship like any self-respecting captain should, handing that honor to his first mate as well.
The movie is designed to prove how much better suited to command Chase is than Pollard, especially when the ground is leveled and they’re set adrift in competing craft, the stage seemingly set to demonstrate who is best equipped to man a ship. There was potential here for real dramatic fireworks as the elitist aristocrat and the populist man of the people vie with one another for authority and control. But while Chase may question Pollard’s aptitude as a captain, the movie never stresses any egregious incompetency on his part. Nor is there ever any suggestion that the Essex sailors look down on him the same way the first mate does, not even after they’re guided directly into the eye of that storm to test their mettle. Unlike in Mutiny on the Bounty, the loyalty of the men is never divided between their competing skippers, making Chase’s personal vendetta increasingly seem like the sour grapes of a disgruntled employee who believes he’d make a better boss. Each man has been accorded their own contrasting mimi-me, manifestations of their inner id in the form of surrogate sons, just as the big bull whale they hunt is shown shepherding a calf of his own. Chase is allotted cabin boy Nickerson, in the person of Tom Holland who, after having played Billy Elliott on stage, appears to be growing into the spitting image of another Jamie Bell. Having first been brought to attention in The Impossible, in which he was caught up in one of the most destructive tsunamis in recorded history, Holland finds himself back on familiar disaster movie turf, and his luck doesn’t appear to have improved any in these present circumstances. For his part, Pollard is accorded a snooty Little Lord Fauntleroy in the form of first cousin Owen Coffin (Frank Dillane, in a part as grating as the one poor Holland was handed in The Impossible). Such undemocratic evidence of nepotism aboard ship intends to demonstrate how the American elite maneuver to keep wealth and power within the family, handing it down like an heirloom from generation to generation. Though its purpose gets lost sight of quickly enough, I think the script intended to show whaler Chase turning from his wicked ways once he makes a connection with this whale seemingly possessed of preternatural intelligence, beholding a spiritual being similar to himself as its all-seeing eye of God peers back, judging him. The life changing revelation causes him to forever put aside his harpoon. An unspoken communication is exchanged between the two, striking a bargain that the leviathan will let him live if he lays down arms, gives up whaling to become a harmless merchant mariner. He’s granted a reprieve along the lines of ‘get thee hence and sin no more,’ proving that the larger mammal’s quality of mercy is not strained. But considering that Capt. Pollard, who bloodthirstily berates Chase for not lancing the whale when he has a clear shot, is also rescued, one can’t be sure how far to take that line of reasoning.
For his part Pollard, who believes superior birth bestows upon him dominion over all creatures of land and sea, finds himself humbled, accepting his designated place in the universe, an insignificant speck next to the mountains of moving blubber he hunts. Only in a Ron Howard movie could the Fletcher Christian and Capt. Bligh stand-ins patch up their differences, being brought closer together only to find their whale boats drifting further and further apart. The two leads man their roles respectably enough, even if they aren’t given call to entertainingly whale away at one another as often as one would like. But In the Heart of the Sea is sorely lacking a grand, loony central character on the Shakespearean scale of Ahab to hang it all on. Maybe if Walker had again been allowed to don his stovepipe hat and Quaker beard, he would’ve come physically closer.
It’s not that high drama can’t be derived from this situation, as the castaways launch off on their epic trek across thousands of miles of rough ocean. It’s been managed before, as long ago as Lifeboat and Abandon Ship and as recently as Life of Pi and All is Lost. But as it is with screen adaptations of Ben-Hur, which perceptibly drag after the big chariot race, In the Heat of the Sea suffers from a similar, fundamental structural flaw which the movie makers must have seen coming. But scriptwriter Leavitt has devised nothing to circumnavigate the inevitable doldrums that set in after the big sinking, which itself comes about only after much unnecessary padding, about midway through. Trying to sustain the unrelenting pace created by that whale attack so that audience interest doesn’t subsequently flag, the movie condenses events terribly during the second half.
Action scenes are so frenetically staged and shots held so briefly, half the time we can’t even follow what’s happening in the crush. Even the big scene where the Essex is stove in seems slightly scuttled. It lacks the unanticipated, nightmarishly horrifying beauty of the ship sinking in Life of Pi or even the drawn out, ornate centerpiece sinking of Titanic, whose Heart of the Ocean diamond this title seems purposely intended to recall. It’s a propulsive, wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am deal, concluded almost before what’s going on sinks in. But there is an effectively staged follow-up as the dispirited men return with their day’s catch, only to find the ship they’ve called home ruined beyond repair, realization slowly dawning that their flimsy, cramped present quarters are now the only protection they have against the unpredictable elements.
Feeling shrunken, vulnerable, and exposed, a drop of water in the middle of the wide open Pacific Ocean, they huddle their boats together in a tight, pod-like configuration to give the reassuring impression they’re piloting a bigger ship. In the Heart of the Sea is a movie that wants to play both ends, whipping audiences into frenzy at the thrill of the hunt, plopping us right down in the thick of it, sending us on a roller coaster with its Nantucket sleigh rides as the whalers pursue their quarry, then flip flopping. Rather than basking in the afterglow once the behemoths go belly up, it assumes an air of feigned melancholy for the fate of the poor dumb beasts, morally condemning these same whalers for succeeding at the very task it had been wholeheartedly cheering on just a moment before. Relationships aren’t satisfactorily explored nor characters fully developed, with only four or five individuals being brought into any focus. Others, such as Nickerson’s best friend, are introduced yet never count for anything. If we weren’t told Chase and the second mate Matthew Joy, played by Cillian Murphy, had been friends since boyhood we’d never have guessed it for instance. One whaleboat is lost sight of entirely without much being made of it, and what’s worse we can’t even be sure who was in it. There’s not even any follow-up to the stragglers who decide to stay behind on a barren little spit of land, wanting to meet their fate on terra firma rather than venturing back into the open water, though they too were ultimately rescued. It’s like slugging through an abridged version of Moby Dick.
The script makes no sense of the interconnected inferiority complexes the characters seem to share across the board, from the castaways who try to readjust to civilian life amid the whisperings about what they did to survive, to Melville who doesn’t have any faith in his own talents as an author, Nickerson who’s anxious to prove himself on his first voyage to sea, the untried Captain Pollard who seems so inadequate to the demands of being tested in his first command, and his conceited cousin Owen Coffin whose superior attitude is swept away when he accepts that he’s the most expendable member of the crew. Only self-assured Chase seems entirely secure with himself, at least until confronted with that big white whale sent from on high to make him doubt and falter. As in Moby Dick, the movie tries to position this whale as some symbolic manifestation of divine or diabolic wrath, retribution for presumptuous man’s trespassing upon sacred sperm whale breeding grounds where even angels would fear to tread. So rather than sticking to the established historical facts, in which the sailors really were subsequently attacked by another whale following the Essex’s sinking, it’s instead made to appear as if they were being stalked by the same culprit. The whalers become the hunted themselves, a perversion of the natural order according to Philbrick’s book, something they find impossible to comprehend, pursued mercilessly by a seemingly preternatural being motivated by an outside force and devoid of a definite purpose of its own (“What offense did we give God to upset him so?”). The whale serves as an agent of divine wrath, intent on making them suffer the torments of the damned, rearing its head when least expected, when salvation seems close at hand. Things get to such a strangely surreal state I was convinced at one point we had entered the sunstroked fever dream of Chase himself. It’s as if this single-minded, saw-toothed Monstro were the shark from Jaws. Indeed, if one imagines that Steven Spielberg classic played straight they’d be getting close to the heart of In the Heart of the Sea, which is itself trying to get back to basics by returning to the original source material. And since Howard’s own style frequently suggests pseudo-Spielberg, I suppose this homage is apt.
The film ends with a summary that feels it necessary to stress that Melville went on to write Moby Dick, just in case anyone was in doubt, and the way the narrative has been put together, we’re led to believe the suffering the survivors endured after the sinking of the Essex were simple exigencies, blooding the keel to make possible Melville’s art. We watch as he takes notes in shorthand, same as we see the ink from the captain’s log dissolving in the waters as it sinks along with the rest of the ship, and to its credit the movie takes a moment to mourn the loss of this invaluable written record. The Essex may have gone down, the script seems to argue, but the book it inspired will live forever. Which may partly be why the movie seems far more indebted to Melville than it does the actual historical incident.
In the Heart of the Sea purports to be the true story behind the events that inspired Moby Dick but the drama seems so doctored that it steers darn close to becoming just as fictionalized, a whale of a fish tale. It’s an impression enhanced by editors Dan Hanley and Mike Hill, who cut back and forth between the sea yarn being related by salty old Brendan Gleeson to Ben Whishaw’s unlikely little Herman Melville, all ears, as the story itself unfolds before us. This makes it seem more like a matter of tall telling, as it did in Life of Pi, rather than the recounting of factual events. But occasionally this artificial framing device seems so self-consciously shallow itself, it’s like watching Tusk all over again, an impression enhanced by the sight of Ben Whishaw in muttonchops looking passably like Justin Long. Whishaw, who can also be seen just about everywhere this season in Suffragette, The Danish Girl, The Lobster and the latest James Bond caper Spectre, was so unforgettably creepy as the coldly murderous young aesthete of Perfume, that he put audiences off before they got the chance to warm to him. Even providing the voice of the teddy bear in Paddington hardly helped any. He certainly warrants a mainstream, big screen lead that can showcase the talent so clearly in evidence after all these years.
In the Heart of the Sea suggests Master and Commander starring Russell Crowe, Howard’s star from A Beautiful Mind with its period setting and grim, forbidding, overcast look, best described as ‘portentous.’ The movie’s been captured by cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (who has plenty of experience with flesh-eaters after shooting 28 Days Later) in a Romanticist melancholy inspired by J.M.W. Turner paintings. The film also appears to have pilfered the set of Game of Thrones since just about the entire cast of that show is on hand here, with Michelle Fairley, Joseph Mawle, Donald Sumpter, Jamie Sives, etc. Mantle’s camera seems hypnotized by the flukes, intricately mottled skin and surface slapping whale tail of the CG Moby Dick creation, but only does full justice to the horrifying grandeur of this immense leviathan on occasion, such as when comparing its relative size to that of the boats containing the men, making them truly appear like insignificant specks in the grand scheme of things.
In the Heart of the Sea gradually develops into a grueling physical endurance test on the level of that experienced by the downed bombers at the beginning of Unbroken, yet the singular aspect that separates the true tragedy of the Essex from Melville’s far more famous, fictionalized version of events, the cannibalism that makes the truth of the matter far stranger than the fiction, has been white washed here. Perhaps this was in deference to the factual nature of the material, but some good old-fashioned sensationalism might have served the story better. Eli Roth’s generally atrocious The Green Inferno last summer actually came closer to striking the proper notes of horror and revulsion the topic invokes in civilized sensibilities. Rather than escorting viewers on an odyssey through the heart of darkness as the men sink lower than the lowest order of animal life they hunt, the necessity of eating fellow human beings is depicted as a noble gesture, allowing the unfortunately named, squirrely scoundrel Coffin to redeem himself by making the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good – proving chivalry is not dead. Though there was never any suggestion in the historical record that the sailors didn’t fully own up to what they did to survive, and despite the times being rife with similar horror stories of survival cannibalism, from the Donner party on down, their choice of nutritional supplement is treated as the fidgety men’s most shameful, dirty secret. And In the Heart of the Sea only dabbles at exploring this more bestial side of man’s nature, the side he tries to suppress and which continues to link him to the wild. Some scenes come close to suggesting it, such as when a harpooned whale, thrashing about in its death throes spouts a flume of blood, spattering the men in its vicinity with a gory baptism that makes them appear all red of tooth and claw. The movie’s evident intention to delve into man’s dark heart, his biologic will to survive at any cost, is clearly being signaled, so director Howard’s subsequent, holiday season good-will-toward-man evasions seem all wrong for the material. In the Heart of the Sea has bitten off a premise that’s part Lord of the Flies and part Heart of Darkness, then reduced it to a misty-eyed, candy-colored fantasy land on the level of Life of Pi.
Early on the film suggests civilization’s extravagant waste and disregard for the bounty at its fingertips, discarded, half-eaten corn cobs set upon by starving strays in the street, a dinner spread captured in a fogged still life as if an attempt were being made to duplicate the look of old daguerreotypes, suggesting food, or the lack of it, will become the main focus in the second half of the film as it did in Castaway with Tom Hanks, who can thank Howard for originally elevating him to stardom in Splash and Big. While Philbrick’s book includes some of the most harrowingly graphic, clinically detailed descriptions of the effects of prolonged starvation on the human mind and body I’ve ever read, the movie does something quite unconscionable. The actors in the film were restricted to a 500-600 calorie diet and have shed an alarming amount of weight to appear increasingly gaunt, hollow and skeletal.
And while their blouses have been decoratively strewn aside so we can ogle their sunken chests and protruding ribcages, this startling physical transformation is tossed off in a few throwaway scenes, making what must have amounted to months and months of arduous preparation and personal self-sacrifice on their part seem all for naught, a pointless, onanistic exercise in craft, ultimately as futile as the soon to be extinct whale trade itself. On the cusp of the discovery of underground oil reserves which would go on to make whale harvesting obsolete in a century or so, the movie points up how destructive to the marine ecosystem centuries of plying this trade actually was. But the script’s sense of irony isn’t extended to comment on how the new breed of wildcat oil barons with their offshore rigs and oil spills would go on damaging the environment themselves. Old-fashioned whaling seems downright eco-friendly by comparison. We have little concern for the nameless, faceless sailors who keep dropping like flies and the film seems to have reduced their numbers exponentially to help curtail further confusion. There’s only two scenes of cannibalism in the movie, though in reality as each starving man was slowly picked off, he became food for his fellows. But since we don’t know most of these men from Adam, the natural horror of observing what becomes of them fails to arouse the proper sense of revulsion. Never having assumed the dimensions of fully rounded human beings, it’s of small matter when they’re dehumanized in this way. And in regard to the historical record the movie pulls a far more questionable fast one by deep-sixing the fact that it was the already malnourished black sailors, allotted the most meager rations aboard ship, who were the first to succumb to the effects of exposure, and the first to be made meal of by their white shipmates who closed rank against them, same as the Nantucket natives closed rank against the off-islanders.
There’s a far deeper irony at work in this cautionary tale of the Essex than the movie, with its attempt at inspirational uplift never so much as implies. If the castaways had made for the nearby Marquesas or Society Islands, Hawaii, Tahiti or even Pitcairn Island, settled by the mutineers of the HMS Bounty decades earlier, instead of heading on an irrational trek toward the coast of South America, they would have been spared their ordeal. But their sheltered, puritanical Nantucket upbringing led them to believe that the islands were inhabited by cannibals with whom they didn’t dare take their chances. Far from just being reduced to the same level as the animals they hunted then, the innate prejudices of these white whalers caused them to become the very thing they feared most. Ascribing such behavior to the primitive darker races, solipsism brought them face to face with the ravening beast they little suspected lurking beneath their own civilized exteriors. But for some reason the director allows this grand, philosophical theme, the true tragedy of the Essex, to give way to barnstorming moments of turgid melodrama and florid villainy, such as when Coffin pulls a pistol on Chase, rather than patiently waiting for an inexorable mother nature to finish the job for him. It’s shameless, shameless stuff, grating badly in an otherwise quality film of this caliber. And perhaps In the Heart of the Sea is at its most heartless in what it does to the historical memory of this Owen Coffin, who was little more than a teenager when he lost his life to the shipmates and cousin into whose care he’d been entrusted on his very first voyage out to sea.