Movie Review: In the Heart of the Sea (2015)
After it’s over, when we’re back in Nantucket, 1821, the merchants that sent the men of the Essex out to sea in search of whale oil are about to hold an inquiry into its sinking; and the two men who were at odds for much of the voyage, Capt. George Pollard (Benjamin Walker, reminding me of a young Colin Firth) and First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth, AKA Thor), are asked to lie. They’re asked to lie twice, actually. The merchants want them to lie about the cannibalism for obvious reasons, but they also want them to lie about the white whale. Don’t say at the edge of the earth there’s a monster that sinks ships. That would be ... bad for business.
Chase, who would have been captain of the Essex if not for his lowly birth, and who is offered a captaincy if only he’ll go along with this plan, is stunned that they don’t want to hear the truth; and he admonishes the men who, in his words, want to “whitewash the truth for profit.” And he walks out the door and into another life.
In the audience, long fed up with the film, I thought, “Hey, that’s a good description of Hollywood, isn’t it? We whitewash the truth for profit.” But movies do this a lot: chastise characters for doing the very thing the movies do. I should make a list.
That said, Ron Howard, who’s directed some very good movies (“Splash,” “Parenthood,” “Apollo 13,” “The Missing”), and screenwriter Charles Leavitt, who’s written one (“Blood Diamond”; otherwise, it’s “K-PAX,” “The Express,” and the like), do attempt some kind of verisimilitude. They go places most mainstream movies won’t; they attempt to remind us how long ago 1820 was in terms of attitudes about class.
I just wish it worked better.
Stuck at sea
It’s an odd mix of storytelling methods:
- It sprawls like a 19th century novel.
- It looks at times, like a 1940s film. Some of the shots gave me the same vibe I got with Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse”: like the director was trying to imitate John Ford.
- It includes the unpalatable truths of a post-Hays code film.
- Plus CGI whales.
The movie focuses on the main characters (which is good) but they’re not interesting characters (which is bad). Pollard has a line to Chase near the end: “You were born to do this job, I was just born into it.” But it comes too late; and it’s obvious to us from the get-go.
I admire that Howard refrains from demonizing Pollard and making a hero of Chase; unfortunately, in his restraint, he makes them both rather unlikeable. So we’re stuck at sea with two unlikeable characters, along with a host of others who look interesting but don’t have much to do. Cillian Murphy is on board as Matthew Joy; and he seems an early version of an alcoholic, but to what end? Does it matter if he picks up the bottle again? There’s a fucking white whale out there, remember. Frank Dillane does a good job as Henry Coffin, nephew to Pollard, and thus more privileged than the other men, while Joseph Mawle’s Benjamin looks like a seafaring man from the 19th century. Glancing at Mawle’s CV, in fact, one wonders if he ever gets out of that century. But his character isn’t given much to do, either.
Or The Whale
Here’s the framing device: The last survivor of the Essex, Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson in 1850, Tom Holland in the 1810s), tells the story to Herman Melville (Ben Wishaw), who will, of course, use it to write the great American novel, “Moby Dick.” So occasionally we cut back to this pair: interrupting the story for the storytellers. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it’s necessary. (No matter what they told you in writing class, kids, cannibalism is better told than shown.) But we don’t get much of a sense of the younger Nickerson. He’s like the other crewmembers: just younger and greener.
It was fun when the whale showed up. I was like, “Hey, this is a revenge flick!” But it’s a revenge flick that focuses on the bad guys, whom we’re somehow supposed to somehow care about. I didn't.
Bad title, too.