Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea tells of a whaling ship sunk by an enormous whale, this story nestled inside a framing device in which Herman Melville, many years later, interviews the last surviving crewman as research for writing Moby-Dick. This structure gives the movie a gloss of both history and literature, purporting to tell the real story that inspired a Great American Novel, while engaging with some of the same imagery and texture of the work itself. It’s a neat trick. The movie is slow and steady, lurching out to sea with the Essex and her crew of whalers, then watches patiently as rocky waves and clever whales go from a position of being conquered to the engines of the men’s ruin. It’s a sturdy maritime movie, of rudders and rigging, anchors and fish, hardtack and ambergris. The scenes of Melville earnestly listening to the old seaman’s tale are a bit obvious and clumsy, but the core of the picture is an admirably stripped-down survival story, vividly recreated, handsomely staged with convincing effects.
The screenplay by Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond), based on a book by historian Nathaniel Philbrick, introduces simple characters. The proud first mate (Chris Hemsworth), resentful after being passed over for a promotion, is driven to do what’s best for the ship. The captain (Benjamin Walker) is the son of the boat’s patron, and therefore worried about proving his toughness on this, his first whaling expedition. Meanwhile, the ship has a naïve newbie (Tom Holland), who has a lot to learn, and is therefore our guide into the blood and muck of harpooning a whale, butchering it on deck, and scooping out all the valuable goo inside it. (He’ll grow up to be Brendan Gleeson, reluctantly telling the story to Ben Whishaw’s Melville.) The rest of the crewmen blur together behind their tough beards and mumbling accents, a mostly undifferentiated ensemble to take orders, fill the frame, and get in harm’s way when the danger surfaces.
It’s not so much a narrative of character and incident as it is interested in details of sailing and whaling, in the sensations of life at sea, and in the specifics of the survivors’ endurance. Howard is always great with directing reenactments, from the space shuttle mechanics of Apollo 13, his best film, to the visceral car races of Rush and impressive fires of Backdraft. With his latest film, he has cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) shooting from interesting vantage points, with a seasick woozy feeling to the cameras’ movements. Perhaps they were inspired by Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab’s experimental fishing documentary Leviathan, because they make liberal use of canted or otherwise unusual angles to show off details of labor at sea. A repeated shot will hold extreme close-ups of a rope or knife, an oar or bucket, the man manipulating any given tool in the extreme background as we focus on the work being done. In less stylized moments, dialogue scenes, the camera bobs and sways, rocking with the waves. It wouldn’t surprise me if people seeing this in IMAX get seasick.
There’s a certain element of spectacle in this film that’s big, satisfying, and striking. I’m thinking of a side shot of a rowboat, the camera just underneath the water, pulling downwards as a whale’s tail slaps, shattering the boat and plunging silhouetted figures into the depths. Elsewhere, wide-angle shots show tiny boats against vast expanses of sun-dappled water. And one late moment finds blurry fish-eyed angles on sea gulls chattering above, while a sun-dried groggy man (so starved he looks scarily skeletal) spies land. Howard directs with an interesting eye, perhaps the most visually experimental he’s ever been. You never know who’ll surprise you, I suppose. But where In the Heart of the Sea, which is otherwise often curiously unengaging, most resonates is in connections it draws between images that catch one by surprise and man’s hopelessness in the face of nature.
No wonder the characters are thinly drawn, and their journey simple. It’s not about individuals who are in conflict against the storm of unpredictable weather and wildlife. It’s more elemental, about a Herzog-ian conflict between the inherent dangers of the wild, and the struggle for men to make meaning out of it. The climax is not a moment of terror or violence, but a moment of grace, a man and a whale making eye contact, and finding some silent understanding. (From a whale’s perspective, Moby-Dick must be not only metaphor, but also a superhero.) The film is wrapped in a conclusion that tidies up the plot in comforting middlebrow ways on the surface, but underneath lingers the pain and struggle of the men’s survival, and the violence that we do to the creatures that share our planet. It’s a cycle: the power of storytelling to communicate the darkness we’re capable of committing to live to tell the tale.