Ron Howard’s new fake Moby-Dick movie, In the Heart of the Sea, splashes about its two-hour runtime like a whaleboat on a nantucket sleighride. By this I mean that it drags the viewer inexorably from shore-to-shore through a blue ocean of lies.
But first there is a frame narrative. Herman Melville (played by a nondescript Ben Whishaw), fresh from spitting frothy sea stories unworthy of his much-admired friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, arrives at a boarding house owned by Tom Nickerson and his wife, played by Brendan Gleeson and Michelle Fairley respectively. Melville’s plan is to bribe Nickerson, the last remaining survivor of the Essex, a whaling vessel of ill-repute, to tell him his tale. Gleeson is tight-lipped and defiant: he has no truck with Melville’s opportunistic meddling — until his wife makes it clear that she wants Melville’s cash. In which case, it’s probably wise for everyone to get drunk and listen to this story-behind-the-story of what will become Moby-Dick.
The story of the Essex, Nickerson tells us, begins with the rivalry of Owen Chase, its first officer, and George Pollard, its captain. Chase, from a lightly disgraced family of landlubbers, has made his career as a successful whaler, and now he wants his own ship. But he needs to come back with some 2,000 barrels of whale oil; in the meantime, he must serve under Pollard, the scion of a powerful family of maritime officers and whalers. But before anyone can set sail, we’re reminded tenfold times that whaling is exceptionally dangerous and time-consuming — not so much by dialogue or voiceover, but instead by the camerawork, which is some of the bounciest and most blue-gray tinged of its kind since the first Hunger Games. The point? We’re always on a boat in life.
“Sometimes your kind heart and good nature is just unbearable,” Chase, played by Chris Hemsworth, says cheekily to his wife near the beginning of the adventure. The same might be said for Hemsworth, with his fishhook stabs at complexity and New England accent that ebbs and flows like the tide. (Though, it must be said, he’s skilled at launching himself at ropes and cutting down sails.) Still, it must be admitted of In the Heart of the Sea — as it can be said of virtually every Ron Howard movie — that no actor rides his wave above the others.
“Are you ready to see pretty boy get all roughed up?” I heard a man behind me ask his wife, moments before the film began. Lord, we were not ready. After the successful murdering of a whale — an event which brought me nearly to tears — our crew is waylaid by the childish bickering of its male leads. Eventually, after a brief respite on land, where they learn of a demon fish, their competitive spirit and mutual greed carries the Essex into dangerous waters…they heard tell of manyfold whale.
There is plenty of adventure In the Heart of the Sea, not in the least when the enormous sperm whale that inspired Moby-Dick smashes every available boat over the course of many hundreds of miles. Still, I was more afraid of the dead whale from Werckmeister Harmonies. At least it led to better philosophizing.
There is not much left for me to say about the plot, other than to note that nothing in the film duly prepares you for the horrors that befall the crew of the Essex — horrors that mock the film’s Disney-ish beginnings. In the Heart of the Sea should not be seen by children; this much is proven by the younger incarnation of Thomas Nickerson, who, on his first voyage, vomits into a whale head and is forced to eat someone.
When the scant few men who didn’t eat each other return from the horrendous misadventure of the Essex, the greedy capitalists who sent them on the ill-fated trip ask them to lie. The truth, they surmise, would be nothing but bad publicity for the global whaling trade. But after Chase protests and bails, relinquishing a captainship for the safety of merchant waters, Pollard follows suit; he refuses to lie about what happened to the Essex and its men. But this begs the question: if the men told the truth, why are the secrets of the Essex locked away in Nickerson’s whiskey-addled brain? Why does Melville have to ply him with whiskey and cash in order to learn his secrets?
The truth is more prosaic. As it happens, the majority of the story of the Essex that Melville took for Moby-Dick came not from Nickerson but from Chase’s own book, Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex. Even if what we learn about the ship in In the Heart of the Sea is true, the frame story intends to further miseducate Americans on one of their greatest novels. That’s no great crime. But killing whales should be.