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In the Heart of the Sea

December 11, 2015
In the Heart of the Sea

The sinking of the whaleship Essex was indeed the incident that Herman Melville used as the basis for his most famous story, Moby-Dick. The marketing for In the Heart of the Sea makes it sound like now we’re going to hear the real story, although Charles Leavitt’s screenplay is just as fictionalized as Melville’s novel, albeit a lot more clumsily. Still, it’s a rollicking adventure, and there are worse films coming out this holiday season.

In a nutshell, here’s the story: the Essex set out from Nantucket in August, 1819, for a two-and-a-half-year voyage to the whaling grounds off the west coast of South America. After a number of mishaps they made it there, only to find the waters already picked over by other ships, but with rumors circulating of a new hunting ground a thousand leagues to the west, which was an unheard-of distance for a whaling ship to travel from safe harbor. Shortly after reaching these grounds, the ship was stove and sunk by an enormous and belligerent sperm whale. The survivors drifted in the South Pacific for three months before their eventual rescue.

Among the survivors was the first mate Owen Chase, who wrote and published his account of the shipwreck within four months of his return, and this provided the basis for Melville’s work, published in 1851. Again, we have a story of a ship wrecked by an enormous whale, but Melville picks and chooses the details he weaves into a tale of hubris and ill-advised vengeance, rather than sticking to a factual account of events. A quarter-century later, the Essex‘ cabin boy Thomas Nickerson pens his own account, which manuscript is then lost until 1960, and not published until 1984.

But in the movie, it’s an aged Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) who relates the tale to Melville (Ben Whishaw). See, in Leavitt’s script there was an inquest into the fate of the Essex, but it was falsified and the true story covered up to preserve the economic interests of Big Whale Oil. I’m no fan of the petroleum industry’s regulatory capture techniques, but this is about the most awkward, ham-fisted attempt at allegory I’ve seen.

Luckily, that only really comes in at the end of the story. For the most part, Leavitt manipulates events to set up an opposition between brave, strong, working-class Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) and the effete, entitled, old-money Captain George Pollard, Jr. (Benjamin Walker). According to the script Chase had been promised his captaincy, but it was stolen and given to the totally green Pollard by, you guessed it, his father’s Big Whale Oil friends. In fact, Pollard and Chase had both served together on the Essex‘ previous voyage which is what led to both their promotions on this ill-fated one.

Still, it’s a Ron Howard picture and he can always be counted on to at least shoot the thing decently. There are some gorgeous, vast shots of the sea, including one shortly after the Essex is attacked that would be worthy of J.M.W. Turner. The action during an early storm and in the whaling sequences is exciting, but as you might predict it runs out about halfway through the movie when the ship sinks. The remainder of the time is spent drifting across the ocean, which is rarely so thrilling.

It does, however, get into some pretty dark places, which probably disqualify this as whole-family fare. Still, if all the screenings of Star Wars are full up and you’re looking for an adventure to watch, In the Heart of the Sea looks wonderful, and it should be under consideration.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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