Review: In the Heart of the Sea

In my opinion next to Steven Spielberg, probably the best director of this generation would have to be Ron Howard. The man has proven himself over and over again, with compelling story lines and excellent film craft, “Apollo 13,” “Backdraft,” “A Beautiful Mind,” and others in this top notch portfolio of successes.

Howard also takes his skill and signature attention to detail in his 2015 production of “In the Heart of the Sea” based on the 2000 book of the same title by Nathaniel Philbrick. As director, Howard also produced the film along with partner Brian Grazer. In it he employed all the realism that modern day technology followed by creative ingenuity could muster. However, it did not do as well as other Howard/Grazer collaborations falling short of box office profits by $6 million dollars. Costing $100 million to make according to Wikipedia, the movie will probably pass that number in worldwide distribution on DVD and cable offerings. Currently it can be seen on HBO.

It is the story of the sinking of the Essex whaling ship which formed the basis for Herman Melville’s American classic “Moby Dick” published in 1851. Melville is central to the story as he interviews a reluctant survivor of the ship in gathering notes to write his story. Almost thirty years after the event, Melville sits back and listens to a fantastic tale of a monster white whale that attacked the ship and stalked the surviving sailors as they drifted aimlessly through the ocean in lifeboats.

Setting out from Nantucket harbor in 1819, the ship begins a two year journey to find and slaughter whales for their blubber to make oil. Since this was all before crude was discovered in the ground the civilized world became very dependent on it, very quickly. Whale oil at that time was used to make soap, candles, lanterns, leather goods and a host of other necessary industries. It was a very valuable commodity and drove the industry to slaughter hundreds of whales every year.

It is assumed that it was a Sperm whale that attacked the Essex as that is the largest of the whale family, hence the largest animal on Earth. While Sperm whales had been known on occasion to attack whaling ships it’s hard to believe that a whale actually stalked the Essex and its crew for the express purpose of killing them. That part of the story might be the standard sailor fare that one gets in a Saturday night pub. But, most of the accounts about the Essex, including this movie have drawn their notes from the actual inquiry, Captain George Pollard’s testimony and the private accounts written by the Cabin boy Thomas Nickerson and the first mate Owen Chase after the incident are considered primary documentation. And, all are similar in their descriptions of the ordeal. So, I guess you, the audience or the reader will have to decide how much, if not all of the story is true.

The movie stars Chris Hemsworth in the Owen Chase role. He is slowly proving his worth as a major box office star, even if this one didn’t really hit the mark. Chase, according to the film, has been remembered as a man of honor as he refused to lie about what happened which is what the Nantucket Whaling Association wanted the survivors to do because they feared stories about a “killer” whale might hurt the industry and thus, their profits. Chase refused to go along and did not testify in the inquiry losing his livelihood over it.

Owen Chase may have indeed been a man of integrity and righteousness as the movie projected. But, “In the Heart of the Sea” does not point out in real life that Chase two months after his return to Nantucket published his own account of what happened. That could have been a man of integrity setting the record straight or a man looking to profit on an extraordinary tale about the high seas, adventure and survival, which he knew would make money. You decide.

Howard has done this before with his characters. In “A Beautiful Mind” he failed to point out in the movie some distressing beliefs on the part of his subject, John Nash, which could have shifted sympathies of the audience. This begs the question what responsibility does a filmmaker have to tell the whole story when he is making movies about real people and real history. But, I won’t take that up here except to say you shouldn’t ever, ever take a Hollywood movie as absolute truth. Just take it for what it is, entertainment.

After the ship is destroyed the surviving crew is stranded hundreds of miles from land for over three months. In the end all but seven die, mostly of starvation and exposure. Cannibalism of their dead sea mates has been attributed to their survival until they are rescued and remains a controversial part of this story. What ever happened with that whale may or may not be totally true according to the movie and the book, but it was a harrowing story nonetheless and deserves recognition. It is understandable how and why Melville was so fascinated by it and used it as his model for “Moby Dick.”

Under Howard’s direction the film pays attention to strict detail. Even to the point where the actors playing the seven stranded survivors actually went on a 500 calorie a day diet to lose weight, and it looked it. The storm scenes, the rigging of the ship to change sails and set to sea, the close ups of ropes tightening, and block and tackles working, and of course, the whale, monstrous and actually white in places, all seem so real you feel like you are actually there almost two hundred years ago on the ocean hundreds of miles from the nearest land.

Thomas Nickerson who was only fourteen at the time tells the story as a much older man decades later. The movie flashes back and forth between the story Nickerson is telling and what he is saying to Melville. Howard uses the vehicle to continually remind the audience this was Nickerson’s interpretation of events.

Melville ultimately decides to write the story as fiction and only use certain parts of what Nickerson told him, choosing to respect the sailor’s privacy, about the cannibalism.

At the end of the movie Howard gives us some window into what drove Melville’s plot. Captain Pollard after the inquiry set back out to sea more than once in a quest to relocate that whale. But, he never found it. Obviously Melville used the captain’s obsession to drive his story of Ahab’s unrelenting search to find his “white whale.” In truth, Pollard did return to whaling two years later commanding another vessel which also sunk after running into some rocks off shore. That ended his whaling career. Shortly after that he joined a third vessel, this time a merchant ship. However, it is not clear what his role was. That ship also sunk. That labeled him as bad luck and he spent the rest of his life on land as a night watchman on Nantucket.

Howard also uses Nickerson’s dialog to point out the beginning of the end of the whaling industry. When he and Melville are parting in the final scene, Nickerson solicitously mentions that he heard oil was found in a hole in Pennsylvania. Both he and Melville are stymied by the thought. Late 1840s and oil is discovered on the American continent for the first time foreshadowing one of the great industries of the next century and one that will lead the world into war between civilizations, but for the mid nineteenth century, it’s just a remarkable, almost unbelievable discovery.