Author Herman Melville took the real story of a whaling ship being attacked in 1820 by a monstrous white whale and fictionalized it into one of the greatest American novels, “Moby-Dick.” His book offers an insight into the whaling industry but at the same time is a very human story about courage, determination, camaraderie and hope as shown through his characters.
Ron Howard has taken that approach one step further in his feature film, “In the Heart of the Sea.” He not only recounts the telling of the whale of a tale to Melville by one of the last survivors of the ill-fated mission, but he also focuses on the brutality of the whaling industry and the men who went through the ordeal.
It’s the same approach Howard used when he took the larger story of events surrounding the near tragic trip of Apollo 13 to the moon and used them as the background to make a far more relatable movie. Howard has a great skill at both presenting the nuts and bolts of a big story and being able to humanize the tale.
“In the Heart of the Sea” is made up of three parts. There’s the recounting of the tale, the battle with the whale and then the struggle for survival. Howard blends all three smoothly so that each builds upon the other.
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At the center of this examination are Capt. George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). Pollard was born into a shipping family, earning his command through family bloodlines. Chase just has a natural talent for the job and a passion to better his station in life.
When Pollard is given the command that Chase was promised, the two begin an antagonistic relationship that continues through their quest to fill the ship with whale oil. The details of these efforts are reluctantly told by Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), who was a young man on the voyage, to Melville. The author (Ben Whishaw) is also on his own quest to find the courage to write a great novel.
The battle between the two shipmates becomes meaningless when, after 14 months, the ship travels deep into the waters off South America in search of a massive pod of whales. Their joy at finding what they think will be an easy way to fill their hold with whale oil turns dark when a protector – a great white whale – destroys their ship.
The third act of the movie relates the efforts by the men to survive 90 days lost at sea. Nickerson tells Melville of the “abominations” committed to survive.
By having the film being told to the author, Howard can circumvent some of the more gruesome moments of the story. It’s also a good device to move the story along when the action is adrift for long passages.
The actual confrontation with the white whale is so spectacularly shot that you may want to take some sea sickness pills before heading to the theater. The director’s concern for detail makes it easy to feel every emotional and physical wave that crashes down.
And Howard never loses sight of the key element – the human story. The clash between Pollard’s aristocratic arrogance and Chase’s determination to rise above his status creates a strong basis upon which the other elements can build.
Hemsworth has not had a role to challenge his acting abilities as much as this one. He’s perfect to play Thor in the comic book-inspired films, but there’s little need for acting skill in that genre.
“In the Heart of the Sea” gives him a chance to show that he has the skills to play a role that is both physically and emotionally demanding. It helps that Walker is equally as impressive. It’s the same kind of connection that Howard got out of Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton two decades ago in “Apollo 13.”
“In the Heart of the Sea” could have gone aground in several spots. Instead, Howard charts a dramatic course through a sea of emotional whirlpools, tidal waves of stunning special effects and a steady current provided by the narration.
If the great white whale of Hollywood is a movie that is both smart and full of action, then Howard has conquered that beast.