Wednesday, July 13, 2016

In the Heart of the Sea

     It should be noted that if Moby Dick more resembled the grisly story that inspired it, fewer students would be loath to read it. For reasons that become obvious as the story unfolds, Melville used very few elements of the true story in his nautical epic. Rather, he allowed the true story of the Essex to fade over time, while the fictional tale of the ship Pequod has lived on for generations. As In the Heart of the Sea plays out onscreen, it becomes clear that Melville's choice was one of great propriety and decorum, possibly even compassion, ensuring that the heroes and villains of Moby Dick would always be great literary constructs, never immortalizing the gruesome truth of the Essex.

     Nantucket seems to be a difficult place to make one's way in the world, as Owen Chase realizes when his employers deny him a captaincy, despite his considerable experience as a seaman.Young Thomas Nickerson must take a position aboard a whaling ship at 14 years old to make a man of himself. Captain George Pollard, given command of the Essex ahead of Owen Chase, must live up to his established and respected family name. Mr. Matthew Joy is a recovering alcoholic faced with handling an especially stressful second mate position. No one here is singing about the glorious seas, the fathoms below, or the women back home. Whaling is no pretty picture, and no one is waxing eloquently about the magnificence of it. In the Heart of the Sea is no swashbuckling pirate tale, but a bleak and repulsive account of the harsh reality of being a whaler.

     From the very beginning, the Essex seems doomed to some sort of tragedy. First, Owen Chase, the most able person to captain the ship, is relegated to first mate. Second, George Pollard, the person who is given the captaincy, is an insecure man with relatively minimal experience and plenty to prove. Not only are the tensions high between the two men, but both of them have family pressure to contend with. Early in the trip, the inexperienced and pompous Captain Pollard proves himself willing to make foolish choices against better counsel, just to exert his authority. This choice significantly damages the Essex, which in turn harms their whaling practices. One ill turn deserves another, and the desperation for successful voyage drives the crew of the Essex into dangerous waters to hunt whales in a whale spawning ground. But at least one whale will have none of this.

     In a strange but historically accurate turn of events, a great white whale attacks the Essex, ultimately causing it to capsize. The men who survive this incident are then adrift in a few lifeboats, hundreds of miles from a regular whaling course, followed by the demon whale. Eventually, as the men expire from hunger, thirst, and madness, they must resort to eating the bodies of the deceased. On this particular point, In the Heart of the Sea handles the subject most decorously, referring to the practice by dialogue only, and demonstrating properly the repulsion that all the men feel at taking this measure. Most disturbing is not that the men resort to utilizing the dead for their survival, but that one boat of survivors resorts to drawing straws to determine who should be executed for the purpose.

     For all I know, In the Heart of the Sea may have been an attempt to put Chris Hemsworth in a non-Thor role to test his true acting chops. Whether or not Hemsworth shows any talent here not already seen elsewhere is an easily answered question-- no. Is he bad? No, and it's not even that he portrayed his character with infidelity; it's simply that this movie doesn't really present an opportunity for anyone therein to be anything but angry, distressed, confused, or dying/drunk, which everyone does at some point or another, but never in truly extreme demonstrations. Cillian Murphy, always woefully under-appreciated, masterfully presents all these things at once, and then promptly disappears.

     In the Heart of the Sea never stood much chance at being a popular movie; not when its claim to fame is that the story inspired one of the most tedious reads ever to be forced upon resentful adolescents. The producers seem to have understood this, because the movie doesn't bother itself with A-list actors, stunning visuals, or soaring music. It takes the tone of a Verne narrative, embraces its pace and straightforward story, and presents an interesting and moderately accurate portrayal of the time period and the events therein. It's an entertaining watch, but not much of a standout. As a story however, the facts are thought-provoking. In the Heart of the Sea impresses that Melville not exploiting the sordid details of the account of the Essex was an act of strangely generous decency, allowing the only villain we know in association with a great white whale to be the fictitious Captain Ahab. That decency is something that is lost on modern media-mongering audiences, but strikes a chord of heroism to those who will think through its implications.

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