Over the decades, Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” has proven to be either a life changing piece of literature or the bane of one’s existence. It stays with you; the themes, the emotions, the life lessons, all resonate consciously and unconsciously years later. But what of the story behind the story? Based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s non-fiction account of the same name, “In the Heart of the Sea” is the cinematic telling of the real-life survival story and Melville’s inspiration for “Moby Dick” – the 1820 destruction and sinking of the Nantucket whaling ship Essex.
Framing the film is a young Herman Melville interviewing a now 30 year older Tom Nickerson, the last surviving member of the Essex’s crew. Told through flashbacks to that fateful journey, Nickerson is our guide. Already an established young author, Melville wants to dig deep into the past of the Essex. Long had stories been told about this white whale that brought down the Essex but the ship’s survivors refused to speak of the events. The mystery was too much for Melville. He wanted details and, as we learn, he was seeking his own elusive literary white whale.
In 1820, whale oil is the life’s blood for the residents of Nantucket, the “Whaling Capital of the World.” First Officer Owen Chase, a whaling veteran and skilled seaman, has long been promised by his employer, his own ship to captain. The Essex, one of the finest whalers now newly refurbished and retrofitted, should be his to command. But, nepotism gets in the way and the ship is given to the inexperienced George Pollard, Jr. to command with Chase assigned as First Officer. Begrudgingly Chase accepts the position, but this time with a written guarantee that the next voyage out, he will get his captain’s bars – if he brings back at least 1800 pounds of oil on this trip. Joining Chase is best friend and seamate, Matthew Joy and a newcomer to sea, a young cabin boy named Thomas Nickerson who, much like Chase and Joy when his age, is alone and on the streets looking to survive. For young Tom Nickerson, this is about to be the experience of a lifetime.
Ideally, one wants to find whales as quickly as possible, meet their quota of whale oil, and return home, hopefully within a year or so, thus making no sound on the ship as sweet as hearing elated shouts of “Blow!” As Nickerson recalls the experience of his first whale sighting, we are transported into the sea and salty spray, feeling his excitement as the past plays out in the present for both Melville and the movie audience. The race with the whale. The wearing him down so he may be killed and the oil taken. But for young Tom, the fun of whaling is soon replaced by the disgust and sickening stench of death as, being the smallest boy on the crew, he is lowered through the blowhole into the whale to extract the “golden nugget” of whale oil deep in the folds of the behemoth creature.
Playing out alongside the job at hand is the personal drama of the ship’s hierarchy with a very green Pollard putting the men in harm’s way trying to “prove” his superiority to First Officer Chase. Needless to say, Pollard always come across as a pompous deer in headlights.
Rather than turn around and return to Nantucket after weeks and months of no whale sightings, it is decided to continue the southward trek through the Atlantic and down around Cape Horn into the Pacific. A stop in Ecuador proves fruitful as the Essex hears talk of a place 2000 leagues west where there are pods of hundreds of whales. But there’s a caveat. There is a demon, a devil, that kills and destroys all who may try to capture these whales. Dismissing the warnings as lunatic ravings, despite their differences Pollard and Chase together opt to push onward. Pollard wants to protect his family’s reputation and Chase wants command of his own ship on return from this voyage.
Pressing on with little to no wind, limited rations, tensions are heated among the men. Young Tom Nickerson waits and watches, almost osmotically absorbing the events of each day. But then, it happens. BLOW!!! Whales upon whales upon whales. As the men set out to harpoon their prey, the emotional tide turns; that is until something unlike anything they have ever seen before emerges from the deep. A monster. It is the “demon”. The white whale. Battle scarred and time worn, one look in his eye and you feel as if he knows what you’re thinking, and he’s plotting to stop you. But Pollard and Chase won’t be stopped. At least until this grey and white whale stops them.
Approximately 3000 miles from Easter Island, the Essex is destroyed, men are killed and the survivors afloat in three small launches. Drifting aimlessly at the mercy of the tides, a miracle occurs as they arrive at a large rather barren island. While some of the men elect to remain on the island, Chase and Pollard along with some others, including Tom Nickerson, return to sea where one month becomes two and two becomes three. As death and starvation tighten their grip, the men are forced to make life and death decisions that will haunt Tom Nickerson for the rest of his life, all the while under the unrelenting eye of the great whale.
Who lives? Who dies? How? And what becomes of the great whale? Melville anxiously seeks those answers from Nickerson. But will Nickerson be able to dig that deep into a buried past for Melville’s sake, and more importantly, for his own?
From an emotional standpoint and in terms of physical presence, Chris Hemsworth does a more than serviceable job as Owen Chase. Moments between Hemsworth and young Tom Holland or Cillian Murphy are resonant, believable and often touching. Toe-to-toe with Benjamin Walker, you feel the discontent, jealousy and resentment rise. Where Hemsworth fails miserably, however, is with his accent as it noticeably vacillates between his own distinguished Aussie-European accent to a horrible attempt at a New England/Bostonian accent. When Hemsworth is at sea and in the heat of performance, there is no problem and his accent has the European continuity. But in quiet moments on land, the ineptitude of continuity is distracting to say the least.
As Pollard, Benjamin Walker brings that “green” naivete punctuated with schoolyard bravado that serves the character and story well. Cillian Murphy is perfection as Chase’s best friend Matthew Joy. An interesting touch to Joy is the idea of being a reformed alcoholic, always carrying an unopened bottle of whiskey with him as if constantly putting himself to a test of inner strength. Tom Holland just gets better with every role and here as young Tom Nickerson, he brings an observational quiet growing maturity as the story progresses and adversity is faced. The rest of the ship’s crew is populated with well worn faces and physical demeanor that fill the bill for crews of the day comprised of thieves and criminals, destitute and all looking to escape and survive. Noteworthy is Frank Dillane who provides a creep-worthy element of untrustworthiness as Pollard’s cousin Henry Coffin. Even the character’s name adds to foreshadowing for much of the film.
On land, “In the Heart of the Sea” focuses on Ben Whishaw’s anxious Melville and a grounded and moving performance by Brendan Gleeson as the older Tom Nickerson. Howard knowingly keeps the camera close on Gleeson’s expressive face, giving Nickerson’s story even more depth and gravitas. Gleeson is mesmerizing.
Adapted for the big screen by screenwriter Charles Leavitt, there is an old school cinematic elegance to the script’s construct. Focusing on the seafaring adventures of some rugged men, it harkens to the grandeur and mystery of the ocean itself. Effective is the flashback design by way of Nickerson’s narrative to Melville. Appreciated is all the information on the era – the whaling industry, the seas, the sailing – imparted via voice over scene transitions and the dialogue itself. But what lurks beneath the surface are tacit existential discussions of man versus nature, man versus God, obsession versus madness, and more. That is the truly interesting aspect of “In the Heart of the Sea” beyond the visuals and the “action adventure.”
Director Ron Howard now returns to the ocean with “In the Heart of the Sea” and does so to great effect creating not only a compelling story, but visuals that speak adventure and excitement. Marking his second collaboration with one of the most “realistic” cinematographers at work today, Anthony Dod Mantle, the visual palette is nothing short of spectacular grandeur in scope and size. Shooting on location in the Canary Islands on the island of La Gomera adds an authenticity to an already incredibly realistic lensing of killer open water storms which were created via CGI and on set in England at Leavesden Studios. Utilizing one of the industry’s largest water tanks, the ship’s decking is built on gimbals to mimic the pitch and roll of a ship on the waves during a storm. Realism is fully achieved, particularly with 500 gallons of frigid water pouring from water cannons on the set and actors. The Essex deck is a full-size replica which affords Howard and Mantle room to play with cameras flailing in a controlled chaos during storm scenes, immersing the audience in the milieu.
The great whale is created in CGI but admittedly, is beyond impressive. The scope, size and detail is beyond palpable. Notable is the attention to the whale’s eye. There is the sense of “a soul” each time the eye is framed on camera. It’s touching and speaks to the unspoken themes of the film, and is particularly resonant in today’s world of “Blackfish” and “Racing Extinction.” Hit and miss CGI involves the harpooning sequences and the background sky, which often looks like a canvas matte painting from the old MGM lot with a bright sky that belies the black storm clouds that cover the rest of the palette, as if designed to give a “godlike” appearance to harpoon-throwing Chris Hemsworth .
Standout is Mark Tildesley’s production design. The detail of the Essex and that of 1820 and 1850 Nantucket is period perfect with much of the design elements worked into the script in an educational fashion.
Roque Banos completes the voyage with a rich, lush score that evokes the strength and power of the sea and the whale set against the vulnerability of ego-filled men.
Although Howard and company have toned down many of the aspects of Philbrick’s book, he never shortchanges us on the deeper thematic elements at play while still delivering an action packed adventure “In the Heart of the Sea”.
Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Charles Leavitt based on Nathaniel Philbrick’s book “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex”
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Cillian Murphy, Benjamin Walker, Tom Holland