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In the Heart of the Sea ~ A Capsule Movie Review

In the Heart of the Sea

In the Heart of the Sea ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

In the Heart of the Sea was directed by Ron “Opie” Howard and is based on a non-fiction book by Nathan Philbrick called In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. It’s a true-life story that happened in 1820-21 and that thirty years later inspired Herman Melville to write his epic sea novel, Moby Dick.

The movie is structured as a flashback. The young author Herman Melville (played by Ben Whishaw, who was poet John Keats in Bright Star) visits a grizzled, middle-aged sea veteran named Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), who, thirty years earlier, at age fourteen, sailed on the whaleship Essex. Melville intends to write a novel about the Essex, but especially about the monster whale that was said to have rammed the ship and destroyed it, leaving its crew members stranded in the southern Pacific Ocean for more than ninety days. Nickerson doesn’t want to talk about his experiences on the Essex, but Melville (and Nickerson’s wife) persuades him to loosen his tongue and the two men spend all night talking about what happened, with Melville taking notes.

The captain of the ship, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker, who played Lincoln in Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter) and the more-experienced first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) don’t like each other very much. Captain Pollard, from an old navy family, doesn’t let Owen Chase, the son of a farmer, forget that he is in charge and has final authority in all matters. Pollard has promised investors that he will return with his ship full of whale oil (which might take as long as two or three years) and isn’t interested in taking precautions that Owen Chase believes are necessary to protect the lives of the men on board. What’s a life here or there when there’s money to be made?

They go out to isolated areas of the ocean and find whales and kill them (I know, it’s cruel), cut them open and extract oil from them. After several months at sea, they haven’t found enough whale oil to satisfy Captain Pollard, so he is willing to risk going to an area in the southern Pacific that he has been warned against. The Essex has an encounter with a giant white whale a hundred feet long, but the men are not able to kill it because it’s so big. (When it’s man against nature, man always loses.) They succeed in angering the god-like whale and it eventually “stoves” the ship, leaving all surviving crew members to toddle around in life boats thousands of miles from the coast of South America.

For those of us of a literary bent, In the Heart of the Sea is interesting because of its connection to Herman Melville and the creation of an American literary masterpiece, Moby Dick. It’s an old-fashioned kind of movie that could have been made in the 1940s or ‘50s (using the latest in 3D technology, of course) and for that reason it’s not going to be for everybody. (For my money, a true-life seafaring adventure like this one is much more interesting than a fabricated, flight-of-fancy piece of fluff like The Martian.) During the action sequences, the dialogue is almost unintelligible, so we can only get the gist of what’s being said, but that’s usually all we need. Christ Hemsworth as the star is not as commanding or charismatic as other male actors (for example, Tom Hardy in Mad Max Fury Road), but that’s only my opinion. Those considerations aside, there’s plenty in In the Heart of the Sea to recommend it to the discriminating moviegoer.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp