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Warner Brothers
 122 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Ron Howard 
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker
In the Heart of the Sea

Great literature often finds its inspiration in real events, and Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick is one example. At the time, Melville wrote his whaling tale, he had spent over a year as a crewmember on a whaling ship and lived in the South Seas for a while, experiences that helped shape his first two novels. He was quite familiar with the story of the whaling ship Essex and its first mate Owen Chase, who had written a book about the ship’s sinking after being capsized by a large white whale in 1820. Anyone with even a cursory familiarity with Moby Dick can see how the story of the Essex figured into Melville’s novel.


But the story of the Essex is far more than the account of a mishap between man and beast, as Nathaniel Philbrick’s best selling non-fiction work In the Heart of the Sea demonstrated. It’s a gripping story in its own right, one that doubtless inspired director Ron Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt to make it into a movie. But something strange happened, as it often does, between book and screen, and for some reason the filmmakers chose to ignore large portions of the actual story, fictionalize others, and flat out invent some scenes and encounters, all undoubtedly in an effort to make the movie more dramatic. The result is a film that fails as drama almost as completely as it succeeds in recapturing the essence of the tragedy at sea.


In Howard’s and Leavitt’s version of Heart of the Sea, Chase (played by a miscast Chris Hemsworth) is upset to learn that he’s been denied a captaincy and, instead, been assigned as first mate on the Essex to George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), the nephew of one of the shipping company’s owners. The two men clash over seamanship tactics, and, it becomes quite clear early on the voyage that they can’t stand each other. Unfortunately for them, there are no easy outs on a seagoing voyage. Instead, the Essex is supposed to sail until it got its fill of whale oil. But, after one early success that’s depicted in one of Heart of the Sea’s most exciting sequences, the ship can’t find any more whales in the Atlantic and winds up in the South Pacific.


The crew does spot the whale, a giant white sperm whale that appears to attack the ship deliberately and repeatedly. The surviving crewmembers, including Chase, Pollard, and cabin boy Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland), abandon ship in a handful of the small whaleboats they carried, where they spend three months at seas with minimal food and water. To make matters worse, the white whale returns and attacks the smaller boats days after the initial encounter. Eventually, the survivors resort to cannibalism, eating crew members who died during the ordeal. 


Ron Howard has excelled over the years at recreating actual historic events, whether the Apollo 13 flight or a Formula 1 race, and the sections of In the Heart of the Sea that stick closest to actual events are by far the best. The two sequences involving actual whaling are fascinating to watch, seeing how dangerous and, at the same time, inherently cruel the hunts were. The visual effects are first rate, not good enough to win an Oscar in a year featuring a Star Wars episode, but likely to snag a nomination. Even the details of quieter life on the ship, including an episode in which young Nickerson, the smallest and youngest crew member, has to climb inside an obviously reeking whale carcass to scrape out blubber, are eye openers.


The depiction of the crew’s ordeal on the lifeboats recalls last year’s Unbroken, but with more men and a far more complex interpersonal dynamic. The decision to resort to cannibalism is shown to be deliberate but only done after a lot of soul searching, and the means by which it occurs, even if fictional, provides the most powerful dramatic moment in a film strangely lacking in credible drama.


And that is the most puzzling aspect of In the Heart of the Sea. The actual voyage of the Essex provided far more raw material for a movie than made it into the final film. But Howard and Leavitt improvise, inventing facts and events as they go. The worst such fabrication is a framing device that has a young, somewhat foppish Melville (Ben Whishaw), trying to interview an older Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) to learn the “real story” of the Essex. Over the course of a number of drinks on a long evening, Nickerson reveals the story.


Of course, this framing device is a complete fabrication. There is no record that Melville ever met Nickerson, and the author was quite familiar with the story of the Essex and with whaling life in general. Further, while the movie calls Nickerson the last survivor of the ship, in actuality both Chase and Pollard were alive at the time and would probably have been the first people Melville would have contacted. Of course, as a framing device, this supposed interview cheats. Nathaniel Philbrick used Nickerson’s account of the voyage, as well as Chase’s better known one, in writing In the Heart of the Sea and the book includes events told from both men’s perspective. But the movie also includes events to which Nickerson was not a party and couldn’t have known about, even though the flashbacks are supposed to be the story he tells Melville.


This inaccuracy could be excused if the framing device added something to the story. In actuality, however, the movie repeatedly cuts away from tense moments to go back to a fairly dull encounter between writer and former seaman. The movie loses dramatic tension and momentum as a result and feels (and is) needlessly padded. Nor is this the only fabrication that takes away from the film’s impact. The movie engages in a bit of piling on in its depiction of the cruelty involved in hunting and killing whales for their blubber but then tries to double down by showing Chase hesitating before trying to harpoon the white whale, as if conscience stricken. The real Chase went back to sea for several additional voyages, facts that are hard to square with someone who decides that whaling is cruelty. Worse, as played by Chris Hemsworth, Chase appears as if he’s pining over his first love.


Beyond all the inaccuracies, the miscasting of Hemsworth is the worst flaw in Heart of the Sea. It’s not just the New England accent that gives him fits; it’s the fact that he’s gives a performance as wooden as that of the Essex. He’s cast opposite Benjamin Walker and Cillian Murphy (as the second mate, an old friend) in an effort to build up the dramatic sections of the movie, but Hemsworth can’t hold his own in scenes with either of them.


In the Heart of the Sea is half of a very good movie, the half that sticks to the action at sea. It should be; it’s based on an incredible but true story. The other half of the film, however, plays like a high school student trying to write a fan fiction version of Moby Dick. This half sinks faster than the Essex did after being rammed, taking some good supporting actors along with it. Anyone who wants to get a feel for what whaling was like in the early 1800’s will get an education seeing this movie; anyone wanting powerful fiction that involves a whaling ship should have read Moby Dick in high school.

Read other reviews of In the Heart of the Sea:


In the Heart of the Sea (2015) on IMDb