by Niles Schwartz
The advertising for In the Heart the Sea, Ron Howard’s maritime adventure of the Nantucket whaling vessel Essex in 1820, presses how this is the true story that inspired “the myth of Moby-Dick,” myth being an operative word, because the image of the immense sperm whale is collectively tattooed in our minds without anyone, English Majors aside (and even then I’m not sure), having read Herman Melville’s confounding 1851 novel. The book fits Mark Twain’s criteria for classic status, something that everyone’s heard about and that no one’s read, interesting because it represents—more so than Twain’s own Huckleberry Finn, which at least a majority of the public has probably skimmed through for high school homework—the ultimate American text. It’s a canonical document for Know Nothing Know It Alls (I’ll plead the Fifth presently for myself), hilariously central to Woody Allen’s parable of conformity Zelig (1982), the human chameleon lying about having read it in order to fit into intellectual circles; we’re told that at the end of Zelig’s life “the only annoying thing about dying was that he had just begun reading Moby-Dick and wanted to see how to came out.” In the Heart of the Sea purports itself as spectacular history, insinuating a raw taste more tart than imaginative fiction, and while it’s unnecessary to criticize Howard for not being quite so abrasive with a $100 million 3D production, its frame story—with Melville having the Essex story told to him by one of the survivors, 30 years later—is a launching port reducing both the novel and its contexts to an easily digestive meal, regardless of the scrumptious intimations of whale fat and cannibalism. It’s not the myth of Moby-Dick that’s generated by Howard, but the of Moby-Dick.
In 1850, young Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw, probably less successful here than another portrayal of literary greatness and solitude, John Keats in Jane Campion’s heartbreaking Bright Star) is struggling to make a name for himself as a writer, his previous books having varying success as he’s stuck in the shadow of Nathaniel Hawthorne (the film makes no mention of it, but The Scarlet Letter would have just been published). Melville’s at work to “know the unknowable,” researching the Essex for a novel about a great whale. He’s located Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), once the Essex’s cabin boy and now proprietor of a struggling boarding house. Melville is willing to pay every cent he has to hear a first person account.
Racked by long standing guilt enabling his alcoholism, Nickerson is reluctant but, as drunken sailors in movies always do, he comes around to tell the tale and Melville’s eager pen jots down what dissolves into the CGI backdrop of Nantucket Island, one of the most popular whaling ports in America. There’s no Captain Ahab but the dueling personalities of Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), selected to commandeer the Essex because of his family’s distinguished reputation, and his First Mate, the brawny and ambitious landsman Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), angry that the oil bigwigs have passed him over for captaincy, but valuable on a ship for his resolve and craftiness.
Predictably the friction between Pollard and Chase is reduced to a standard class conflict, where Pollard’s power is dependent on his name more than his position. He has to live up to a family legacy and he handles his job shabbily, often indecisively, as Chase, the son of farmers, directs the crew confidently. At dinner, Pollard mocks Chase’s dismissal of corn (being that the Chase family grew it), taunting the First Mate about his humble origins. The audience leans away from the puffy upper class captain and toward the stalwart common man (who of course doesn’t eat carb-laden corn, I mean c’mon).
Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s maritime images, broken together with tight close-ups of wet ropes and sails against blustery oceanic backdrops, recalls the documentary Leviathan with their vividness, the picture perhaps the most striking assembly of imagery in any Ron Howard movie (one could here joke about this as an epic throwback to Splash). Racing dolphins drift alongside the Essex until the crew roars “Blow” with first sight of whales. Harpoons are drawn and we see “Nantucket Sleigh Rides,” where staked whales pull saddle boats by rope as the creatures slowly choke on their own blood. This is punctuated by the finale of the animal’s misty blood baptizing the hunters. After it’s gutted, young Nickerson (Tom Holland) is sent into the whale for the disgusting process of bucketing out every available ounce of fat from which the precious oil is separated and barreled.
This is arresting period detail, and In the Heart of the Sea impresses as a whaling procedural, the crew flexing their muscles before the whale dookie hits the rudder. The Essex catches a slump and finds itself in the Pacific, tipped off by weathered Spanish sailors about a gold-mine of whales not too far away. But be warned, they’re told, of “the Demon.” Before long we meet the specter behind Moby-Dick, an 85-foot male with rampant tattoo-like scars across its visage (like in Melville’s book), that uncharacteristically seems dangerously malevolent toward its hunters.
This Monster of God shifts the procedural into a survival story as the crew heads out in three separate boats after the Essex is destroyed. Following the class disparity between Pollard and Chase, philosophy and religion also follow an easily digestible frame, as Pollard espouses the prayers heard at the port for industry, “our noble species” heading out to domineer and kill wild creatures to fuel burgeoning technology; on the other hand, Chase wonders if they’re being punished for offending God. (Similar themes were so much more deftly handled by Ang Lee—in a nearly fairy-tale veneer—and Life of Pi).
In the Heart of the Sea aspires for gritty greatness with the Essex crew slowly starving to death and losing hold on sanity as they drift towards nothing, still pursued and tormented by the demonic whale. The Second Mate, Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy), is wounded and running out of time. The one island they find has limited resources and the portentous remains of other sailors shipwrecked there long before. Some would rather stay put than go back out.
Yet while here the film should be hitting its eeriest notes, it fearfully refrains from reaching towards its influences—both Melville and the true story of the Essex. In the Heart of the Sea mentions God but, as was the case with Angelina Jolie’s stranded-at-sea adaptation of a non-fiction book last year, Unbroken, it’s as if the filmmakers were repelled by the Sublime, cowering even in its photographic representation of the surrounding deep blue which never suggests the inscrutable mass of destruction and predation that underlies the entirely of Moby-Dick (“the universal cannibalism of the sea,” he writes, suggesting maybe Werner Herzog was the dude fit to make this), to say nothing of Melville’s bold eccentricities as a craftsman (that Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master should have been so befuddling to audiences and critics is interesting, as one of its models is Moby-Dick—which had a similarly tepid reaction when published—Anderson referencing John Huston’s worthwhile-if-not-great 1956 adaptation). Moby-Dick is saturated in Biblical engagement inherited from the Puritanism in Melville’s mother; and while the author—through Ishmael—pointedly rejects Christianity’s monotheism for radical polytheism (and nihilism, simultaneously), the immersion in depravity and contemplation is a fundamental component of the epic’s arduous journey, corresponding to unfathomable oceans juxtaposed against land’s measurable assurances.
Also muted when compared to the hackneyed rich man/tradesman frame is the importance of race, so vital to a pre-Civil War narrative where a white protagonist remarks how it’s better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian. Howard’s done away with any colonial tension, excising an important part of the Essex story, where Chase persuaded Pollard not to paddle the survivor vessels to the Marquesas for fear of encountering cannibals—among whom Melville himself claims to have lived (inspiring Typee)—even though, unbeknownst to Chase, the indigenous Marquesas inhabitants had been missionized for decades.
Was “problematic” representation what scared the filmmakers off, even though the story would go on to delve into the ironic cannibalism amongst the Essex crew? Making an amiable story by flattening out rough areas that may cause discomfort—even while the cannibalism happens! (granted, Howard doesn’t have the nerve to show it onscreen)—is the mark of Howard, who even tames Hemsworth, by now the most magnetic of the Avengers and so impressive as a meaty avatar in the hyperreal future/now of Michael Mann’s terrific Blackhat, into delivering a one note performance (the actor’s electrifying gusto was the most impressive aspect of Howard’s race car drama Rush from 2013). While invoking Melville as Nickerson’s story told in a room transformed by moonlight (as prescribed in Melville’s manifesto “Hawthorne and His Mosses”), when the real and imaginative intermingle, the restless anxieties of history that are integral to Puritanical New England literature are diminished by Ron Howard’s life jacket, imaginative moonlight squandered for a fluorescent epic at Bennigan’s. Original sin becomes a good liberal’s guilt, the Divine a historical footnote, and big business the reliable not-so-great devil shoe-horned into a card-board cut-out world in motion.
Such attitudes are fine (I empathize), but while I dread suggesting political correctness, In the Heart of the Sea’s relationship with great American literature is detrimentally akin to what Roland Joffe did in 1995’s horrid rereading of The Scarlet Letter (partly unforgiveable because Gary Oldman is the perfect Dimmesdale and, yes, Robert Duvall could have been a great Roger Chillingworth; granted, Demi Moore as Hester Prynne, and there I can’t help you), which scoffs at antiquated ideas such as Sin in favor of lazy—and similarly Puritanical—notions of patriarchal colonial oppression. It’s also similar to the uneasy fit of Baz Luhrmann and The Great Gatsby, founded on the “Holla!” contrivance of the jazz age’s sensationalism without the crushing ache and wistfulness of the westward frontier, which is the psychological setting of Fitzgerald’s novel. The flatness of faux grit with stories stripped of contextual agonies recently infected Scott Cooper’s New England story, Black Mass, so airless when compared to the tempest of attitudes—religious, political, racial—in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed 10 years earlier (The Departed’s screenwriter, William Monahan, also alludes to Hawthorne, and you can tell that he’s read and taken him to heart).
What’s fascinating about so much 19th century American literature is how it encapsulates an unfinished nation of diverse travelers at a historical crossroads, the authors smothered by the past and sins of their ancestors while the country is slowly under construction and subject to a rapacious conquest done in the name of something divine. Emerson tells us to look forward and be born again; Hawthorne and Melville have to turn around and confront the stalking demon. Containing his multitudes; Whitman is the whale, embracing all history, good and evil. And while I couldn’t help remembering Monty Python’s “Cannibalism” and “Short Straw” sketches as In the Heart of the Sea’s sailors getting peckish on their lifeboats, the wrap-up of (duh spoiler) young Herman Melville all chuffed and ready to begin writing his whale of a tale (it’s rather hilarious what he tells Nickerson how he’s going to work with the story told to him), brought to mind another film of New England writers dealing with history and imagination.
Francis Ford Coppola’s unjustly maligned 2011 film ‘Twixt (the title referring to “’twixt now and sunrise” from Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown”) is also about a frustrated writer, Hall Baltimore (Val Kilmer), looking for the spark of inspiration. He converses with himself (and argues with his ex-wife, threatening to sell his rare copy of Leaves of Grass) at his laptop, dreams up drunken conversations with Edgar Allen Poe, and is tormented by memories of his daughter, tragically killed years ago. Through this washed-up author of pulpy horror books, Coppola himself is wrangling with his influences, his past (the daughter died in an accident not unlike the one that killed the director’s son in 1986), his failures, and the evolving technology with which he works (some sequences were shot in 3D). ‘Twixt isn’t so much a modern day horror story in the manner of Poe, a disappointment that may have contributed to the vituperation it received; and if it’s not Hawthorne either, maybe you could say it’s close to the sardonic sensibilities of Ambrose Bierce, and as such it has a degree of camp it warmly embraces along with its heavy sentiments. More than other filmmakers tackling with this time and milieu, Coppola is an American Romanticist. While Ron Howard tells us that Melville published Moby-Dick the next year and it became a classic, he neglects mentioning how at publication, like Baltimore’s new book that has his agent beaming, it only did “so-so business.” The unresolved problems of history refashioned as art is heightened even in mediocrity (or veiled pearly genius). Haters be damned, ‘Twixt soars because of its self-financing author’s risks and, like so much neglected Coppola, it’s at least interesting to talk about.
In contrast, In the Heart of the Ocean heaves two story anchors into its waters, the Melville framing device and Owen Chase’s pregnant wife-in-waiting (Charlotte Riley), who—we’re not told here—would be dead in a couple years. Chase then remarried three times, his lost at sea trauma exhibiting itself in old age as he became a hoarder and died insane. Pollard, meanwhile, would retire from the ocean and have the modest destination as Nantucket’s night watchman. The unnerving hush sparked by such lives and the things they’ve seen is smoothed out by ready-made false anchors of “true life” novelty sewn into this film’s too-delicate silk sails, catatonically floating audiences away from the depths and into shallow Days Inn swimming pools.