I suppose anyone who studies history is frequently disappointed in historical films, but there's a fundamental mismatch between this particular story and the approach taken by the filmmakers. Maybe this is a story that can't be filmed, or shouldn't be. Maybe the themes alone are too big to fit into a two-hour movie. But I've seen action and philosophy coexist in a film, if not often, and I wish that had been accomplished here. A feature about whaling was going to have difficulty finding an audience, Chris Hemsworth notwithstanding. But if it had delved into some of the themes in the book, perhaps it could have achieved comparable relevance.
I'm not certain anyone connected with the movie gave the book more than the most cursory of readings. I suspect most of the reviewers haven't either, or I would have seen more criticism of the aspects I find most irksome.
Warning: SPOILERS ABOUND.
Philbrick's 2001 book describes the 1819 voyage of a whaling ship that was destroyed by a sperm whale--an incident which provided Herman Melville with the basis for his Moby-Dick. (Smithsonianmag.com has a good synopsis.) A book that rates five out of five stars for me is one that I can't stop talking about, whether or not anyone around me wants to hear more about it, and this is one of my five-star books. It's not only a straight-forward yet graceful account of some horrifying incidents, it gives the story historical and philosophical grounding that show how the sinking of the Essex remains relevant to the current era. It's also readable and quick-moving, not glossing over the unpleasantness of the story but also not dwelling overly on the more sensational aspects.
In particular, the book's descriptions of the Nantucket whaling trade demonstrate a small-scale culture of greed and ignorance that is endemic today. And Philbrick also shows a sensitivity to the complexity of human relationships and motivations that make survival less straightforward a task than one might expect.
After doing the amount of research I have for The Stowaway, I accept that I have an esoteric knowledge base about careers at sea. I've read Moby-Dick, Ahab's Wife, Master and Commander, and In the Heart of the Sea in the past year and taken scads of notes on all four. I wondered how the filmmakers would approach the grisly job of rendering a whale, and this is shown, if briefly, including in one scene that reminded me of a scene in Moby-Dick that is one of the most hilariously gruesome things I've ever read.
But the most controversial and horrific aspects of the story, if addressed at all, have little of the context and impact of their counterparts in the book. The cannibalism among the survivors aboard the whaleboats is touched on only lightly. And the ending of the book, which is chillingly effective, was evidently decreed too intense to be included in the film.
|It's hard to be my book.|
More disturbingly, the movie disregards the fact that in reality none of the ship's black crewmen made it home from the wreck of the Essex (and for that matter, no non-Nantucketers, a fact mentioned in passing but in such as way as to cast the cliquishness of those particular men as a purely admirable trait.)
On top of that scene's inaccuracies, it's a glowing example of a cinematic sentimentality throughout the film which does not engage actual emotions. Chase's teary-eyed wife is more of a trope than a character, and pensive stares into space by the actors do little to convey the horror and trauma of the experience of the Essex survivors.
And there are more bothersome inaccuracies as well. Some of the historical representations strike me as unfair, especially that of Captain George Pollard, who was assigned every bad decision made by the officers of the Essex. But other characters fare almost as badly. Even first mate Owen Chase's own account of the voyage, while glossing over his mistakes, did not portray Chase as heroically as does this film. Pollard's nephew manages to be both more and less noble than in real life. In actuality, the officers were both more selfish and hubristic, and more stubbornly determined to survive, than the movie conveys.
The movie does contain some beautiful cinematography (although it falls so squarely into the blue and orange category that it became distracting). The difference in lighting between scenes on the Atlantic and Pacific oceans is glorious. But a technique almost unavoidable in blockbusters--quick cutaway shots--both misrepresents the often tedious reality of life on a ship and made it hard to follow the action. If I hadn't read the book, I wouldn't have been completely sure what had happened to the Essex in the Gulf Stream or when the whale rammed it. The bracketing scenes with Herman Melville interviewing former cabin boy Thomas Nickerson disrupt the action and dilute the tension of the film, though Ben Wishaw and Brendan Gleeson deserve credit for their portrayals.
I was unsure from the outset if Richie Cunningham was the right director for In the Heart of the Sea, and my misgivings were confirmed from the first scenes. I've been considering which other living director(s) might have been able to do this book justice--someone with less of a commercial instinct and a greater willingness to explore the themes with honesty. Someone who doesn't flinch at the rougher aspects of the story but still has an eye for the drama inherent in it. Perhaps Alejandro González Iñárritu or Martin Scorcese or John Sayles (director of both The Secret of Roan Inish and Lone Star), or maybe Werner Herzog for a documentary retelling. I welcome further suggestions in the comments.
|Grey whale skeleton at Pacific Science Center|
For more discussion of the actual nature of whales, see How realistic are the vengeful whales of "Moby-Dick" and "In the Heart of the Sea," really? at qz.com.