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Catching up on 2015: In the Heart of the Sea

The director of Apollo 13 has a fan in me for life, and so a new Ron Howard film is always going to attract my attention.  The idea of Mr. Howard directing a film telling the “true” story behind the book Moby Dick is an interesting hook.  There are moments of greatness in In The Heart of the Sea but, unfortunately, the film never really came together for me.

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In the Heart of the Sea begins with a framing sequence set in 1850, in which young writer Herman Melville (Ben Wishaw) visits Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the elderly survivor of the whaling ship Essex.  Mr. Melville wants to learn the truth of the terrible fate that befell the Essex and her crew, so that he can use the story as the basis for a new novel he is working on.  Thomas grudgingly begins to tell his story, and we flash back to 1820.  Chris Hemsworth plays Owen Chase, the dashing whaler who has been promised a captaincy on his next voyage.  Unfortunately, the money-men for whom he works have instead appointed Owen to serve as first mate for Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), a man with little whaling experience but who comes from an influential family.  The two men clash immediately, a situation exacerbated as months pass at sea with little sign of whales.  The Essex eventually travels far out to sea, following rumors of whale-sightings.  Far away from any assistance, they encounter an enormous white whale that quickly proves to be more than a match for the crew of the Essex.

Right away, In The Heart of the Sea has a major structural problem.  The framing device sets up the film as the story of Thomas Nickerson, a young boy on board the Essex.  But as soon as the main body of the film begins, telling us the story of the Essex in 1820, the main character is clearly Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth’s character).  He’s one hundred percent the hero of the story and the focus of the film.  Young Thomas Nickerson is just a minor supporting character.  Now, perhaps this story could have worked as Thomas’ recollections of the powerful, charismatic men who led the Essex.  But that’s not how the story is structured at all.  These events aren’t told from Thomas’ perspective.  Right from the beginning, we get to see scenes that Thomas wasn’t in any way involved or present for, such as Owen’s last hours with his wife, or Owen’s behind-closed-doors meetings with the bankers who financed the Essex’s expedition.

So the whole structure of the film doesn’t really work at all!  I found that hugely distracting as I was watching the film.  I truly have no idea what Mr. Howard and writer Charles Leavitt were thinking.  Was the entire idea of the framing device added late-in-the-process of the making of this film?  I like the framing sequences.  Getting to see a grizzled Brendan Gleeson work is always a hoot!  And Ben Wishaw is also always interesting.  But while those scenes are fun on their own, in the context of the film they don’t make any sense to me.

The film boasts some gorgeous visual sequences and terrific action, no surprise from the talented Ron Howard.  I’ve read often how challenging it is to film at sea, and so Mr, Howard and his team are to be congratulated for the stunning way they have realized their depiction of life on the sailing ship Essex.  I don’t know how much of what we see on-screen is real and what is enhanced by visual effects, but the result is seamless.

Chris Hemsworth and Benjamin Walker both solid in the lead roles as first mate Owen Chase and captain George Pollard, respectively.  These roles are written fairly thinly (Owen Chase is seldom wrong and George Pollard is seldom right), but both actors are hugely charismatic and fun to watch, and both are able to imbue their characters with a welcome dose of humanity.

Cillian Murphy is also great as Owen’s good friend Matthew, the second mate on the ship.  It’s nice to see him playing a nice, noble dude for once!  Usually Mr. Murphy plays creeps and weirdos.  It’s also nice to see Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark!) as the older Thomas Nickerson’s wife.  She does solid work in her few scenes.

Meanwhile, Tom Holland (the future Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Spider-Man!) is solid as the young Thomas Nickerson.  Unfortunately the film doesn’t really give us much reason to care too much about his character.  Brendan Gleeson is terrific as the old, grizzled Tom, but the young Tom who we see in the main body of the film is pretty much a non-character.  There are moments in which the film threatens to actually tell us a little about young Tom’s first experiences at sea (such as when we see him given the horrible task of having to go inside the dead whale carcass), but unfortunately those moments are few and far between.  But Mr. Holland does his best, and I’m excited to see what he can do in a stronger film.  (I’m hoping the next Spider-Man film is it!!)

This film isn’t a catastrophe — it’s a decently entertaining story, one that is told competently enough.  But there’s little that makes the film stand out.  Nothing in the story feels particularly exciting or surprising.  This “true” version of Moby Dick feels somewhat less interesting than a straight adaptation of Mr. Melville’s book might have been.  (I cannot vouch for the quality of the book by Nathaniel Philbrick upon which this film is based.)  Some of my favorite aspects of the film were the moments in which we got to get a sense of what life out at sea on a whaling ship might really have been like (such as the sequences of the first whale kill, and the depictions of the steps taken with the whale carcass afterwards).  And some of the sequences of chaos and action that we see out at sea are fun.  But none of this feels strong enough to anchor the film (no pun intended).  I’m not quote sure the point of this film.  Why did Ron Howard and his team feel this was a story worth telling?

In the Heart of the Sea is a decent adventure at sea.  But I was hoping for a lot more.

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