Listen ye close, and I’ll tell ye the tale of Ron Howard. He starred on The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days; he produces and narrates Arrested Development; he seems like a genuinely nice guy. And he makes movies in the populist, yet serious-minded style of his friend and colleague Steven Spielberg, which means that some of his films are lighthearted entertainments intended for mass appeal (The Da Vinci Code, Willow), while others are heavier, more personal projects that don’t make as much money, but impress critics with their story and craft (A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon). And occasionally, he makes a film like Apollo 13, which satisfies both audiences.
Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea stakes its place on that middle ground. It’s based on a true story, the November 1820 wreck of the whaleship Essex, whose horrific details provided fodder for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. And it’s a rousing, big-budget adventure, with visual effects that put the Pirates of the Caribbean films to shame. And its star, Chris Hemsworth, is a full-time action hero (he’s Thor!) but also an emerging actor hungry to expand his dramatic range, which he’s done in films like Michael Mann’s Blackhat and Howard’s own Rush.
But even with all these pieces in place, In the Heart misses its mark. I can’t imagine audiences pumped for Star Wars sitting quietly through In The Heart’s quiet, despairing second half, and I can’t imagine critics taking kindly to the film’s freewheeling liberties with its source material. It’s just … weird. It’s a well crafted, engaging kind of weird, but weird all the same.
The facts: The Essex set out from Nantucket in August 1819, on a two-year quest to fill its hold with whale oil. (In the Heart pushes the “no blood for oil” button awfully hard.) It was captained by George Pollard Jr. (played in the film by Benjamin Walker), and its first mate was Owen Chase (Hemsworth). The two men had served together before, and were both freshly promoted; neither man was yet 30. Shortly out of port, the Essex was caught in a squall and took heavy damage, but continued on to South American waters, where a giant whale rammed the ship and sank it. The survivors drifted at sea for months, resorting to cannibalism to survive before the entire crew was rescued in April 1821.
Howard keeps to the true-life account, but embroiders upon it in ways that change its shape. In the film, Pollard and Chase are serving together for the first time. There’s no mention of the fire a crewmember started on Charles Island, which burned out of control and drove some of its indigenous wildlife to extinction. And the whale, which disappeared after it destroyed the Essex, actually follows the crew in the film, periodically surfacing like a bad dream.
I get it. Paying audiences need Chekhov’s Gun: If a whale appears in the first act, it had better wreck up some shit in the third. But the story of the Essex isn’t Jaws 2, and it doesn’t need to be. There were—still are—plenty of ugly ways to die at sea, from drowning to being struck in the head by a piece of timber. Sometimes you have to eat your dead out there, when provisions and fresh water are gone. There’s drama enough on the high seas without resorting to slasher movie tactics, and Howard should know better than to employ them.
The actors do their best. Hemsworth is likably roguish; Walker stuffy, but heroic; Cillian Murphy, whose sky-blue eyes are one of the film’s best special effects, has little to do but seems to be enjoying it. And the two actors whose conversation frames the film—Brendan Gleeson as Thomas Nickerson, one of the Essex’s surviving hands, and Ben Whishaw as Herman Melville—ham it up nicely, though their jobs are largely delivering exposition, and they have no chemistry with each other or with us.
I can, however, recommend the first half of the movie—up to the first, fateful whale attack—with chest-beating gusto. The sequence of Essex putting out to sea is one of the most beautiful things Howard has ever committed to film—a flurry of stunt work, fast-cuts and creaking violence. Ropes snap, orders are shouted and masts issue groaning complaints, and it’s so utterly realistic you can almost smell the brine. The rest of the film looks just as good, but it’s that early sequence of In The Heart of the Sea that involves you emotionally, even when its characters don’t. You feel like you’re going somewhere real.
In the Heart of the Sea (PG-13): ★★★✩✩