Nautical Goliath Spares Defiant “David” in a Tables-Turning Whale Tale

Joseph Rodman
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Mary Gregerson
Booz Allen Hamilton
Leavenworth, Kansas

Marco C. Conners
National Simulation Center
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

Review of Into the Heart of the Sea, Director: R. Howard (Director, 2015), Burbank, CA: Village Road Show Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures.

Hollywood has a long history of telling stories about man’s fight for survival against the forces of nature. In Jaws (Spielberg, 1975) Brody (played by Roy Scheider), Hooper (portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss) and Quint (played by Robert Shaw) heroically overcome a man-eating great white shark.  In Cast Away (Zemeckis, 2000) stranded Chuck Noland (role by Tom Hanks) survives a remote and uninhabited island, and in Walkabout (Roeg, 1971) two Australian children (portrayed by Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg) are abandoned in the outback to fend for themselves.  Many memorable movies illuminate fundamental and familiar human truths when challenged by violent, inescapable, and indifferent nature. Such films paradoxically and simultaneously highlight the intimacy of the personal and the epic of the universal.

These aspirations remain unfulfilled in Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea, which tells the true story of the Essex, a whaleship destroyed by a sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean in 1820.  The survivors spent over three months adrift, resorting to cannibalism before the remaining few were rescued.  This ordeal provided inspiration for Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851).

Howard’s movie begins in 1850, when the young Herman Melville (played listlessly by Ben Whishaw), haunted by rumors of the Essex’s doom, visits Nantucket to plumb the tragedy as fertile material for his next novel.  He locates Essex survivor Tom Nickerson (played by Brendan Gleeson), now a drunk, emotionally stunted middle-aged man painfully mute on his experience.  Melville eventually bribes Nickerson to tell his tale. These scenes serve as foils for the movie climax and denouement.  Yet, Melville and Nickerson’s tawdry exchange reduces human motivation to profit rather than either embracing Melville’s keen interest in the story or Nickerson’s catharsis telling it.

Such disappointing unfulfilled promise riddles the movie. The departure of the Essex is preceded by obligatory human drama when fleet management passes over hero Chase (a bellowing, energetic Chris Hemsworth’s portrayal recalls too much his comic book characterization of “Thor”) for less experienced but moneyed and well-connected Pollard (Benjamin Walker) to captain the ship.  Reluctantly serving as First Mate, Chase’s tension with Pollard is routine, predictable, and banal.  The storyline lingers for the film’s first half before dissolving without any meaningful development.  Hemsworth’s effort, while not the weakest part of the movie, is ultimately soulless—but at least we know who Chase is. Pollard’s tabula rasa character ebbs from memory before the credits roll.  Without irony, the great whale itself commands more interest as its expressive eyes hypnotize Chase and the audience.

The film is at its best during the crew’s first chase and slaughter of a smaller whale. A sense of the enormity, the terror of the task and its true industry wash over viewers.  Primordial scenes evoke the bloody, merciless path we took to modernity, bestowing ephemeral heroism on those imperiling themselves to prod humanity toward the future.  In the end, the film reminds us of the unsustainability of the whale oil industry and, perhaps, of our modern fate with oil of a different kind.

Later, during the whale attacks on the Essex, the great whale towers eye-to-eye with Chase.  This ardent blood-quickening, heart-to-heart battle drowns in over-dazzling, chaotic, cluttered, and disorienting computer generated imagery (CGI).  Artificial flash and flare pilfer genuine depth and mystery from an animal even grandiose among its own and hijack the thrill or terror of those the gargantuan beast besets as it thwarts man’s attempt for dominion over the seas and their contents.

Director Howard simply misses the boat. His intent throughout is admirable, but his rousing old-fashioned sea-epic might have better set sail in the 1940s or 1950s rather than failing to deliver on the promise of re-mythologizing one of the great American narratives or muffing the aspiration to sound the depths of the human psyche.  Still, Howard does touch on the sublime in twilight sea scenes evoking the painter Turner’s muted yellow and green seascapes where light helixes from the canvas.

Yet, such peeks of brilliance plummet disappointment even deeper due to unfocused story-telling trying to cover too much ground. An epic should be meaningful, interesting, and focused. But in Howards’ film, where should we look?  The misguided attempt by man to control nature?  The class difference between the two main characters?  The corrupt economic system that led the Essex to its fate?  The thrill of the chase and the struggle to survive?  Too many broad strokes obscure the incisive insight required to move audiences.  A bolder script would have fared better with less time on land and more on the men’s experiences adrift at sea after the whale destroys their mobility—and menaces their lives.  Indeed, the second half of the film’s abbreviated restraint gives short shrift to the horrors the survivors endured before rescue.  Howard fails to humanize the shipwrecked sailors’ struggles. He sidesteps plunging “into the hearts of the see-ers”—that is, the audience—by avoiding honest confrontation with the truth that the elder Nickerson so hesitatingly shares with Melville, and by “muting” insight into the parallels between men struggling with their own brute natures and with brutal nature itself.  Director Howard echoes Essex survivor Nickerson’s own shunning of the repulsive yet basest truth that human survival will feed upon other humans when absolutely necessary, succumbing to Maslow’s (1954) lowest level—physiology—in his hierarchy of needs. We are animals first and foremost.  The film may have been better served with Howard confronting this reality more unflinchingly.

Though its vigor and aspiration are apparent, the burdensome script lacks focus and distilling elements found in more memorable efforts of its genre. Perhaps Howard might have fared better directing less attention to the arrogant and aimless (and mostly fictional) conflict between Chase and Pollard, and obeying more of Melville’s own advice: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.”


Melville, H. (1851). Moby Dick/The whale. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers.

Maslow, A (1954). Motivation and personality. New York, NY: Harper, p. 236.

Roeg, N. (Director, 1971). Walkabout. Century City, CA:  Max l. Pittman-Si Litvinoff Productions, Distributed by 21st Century Fox Productions.

Spielberg, S. (Director, 1975). Jaws. Universal City, CA:  Universal Studios.

Zemeckis, R. (Director, 2000). Cast away. Universal City, CA:  Universal Studios. Universal City, CA: DreamWorks SKG.

One thought on “Nautical Goliath Spares Defiant “David” in a Tables-Turning Whale Tale

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