There have been great movies made about man’s encounters with the powers of nature while lost at sea. In the Heart of the Sea is not one of them.
The flashback structure is one of its many problems. In 1850, young author Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) bribes Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), a retired sailor, to discuss a voyage he’d endured 30 years earlier. This voyage, Melville suspects, included a giant sperm whale attacking men at sea, leaving them stranded for months with little hope of survival. Nothing like that had ever happened — so it’d be great story material if Thomas provides the details.
Director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind) and screenwriter Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) infuriate us by initially having Thomas resist telling the story. Why? Because it was hard, we surmise from Thomas’ reaction. Of course it was hard. Melville wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t hard. Now stop wasting our time and get to the parts the trailers have been promising for months. This is an adventure that can sell millions of books (it’s the story that inspired Moby Dick, we’re told), so it seems careless not to explore it.
In 1820, a younger Thomas (Tom Holland) was a 14-year-old lad on his first seagoing excursion aboard the Essex whaling ship out of Nantucket, Massachusetts. With whale oil prices at a premium, Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and First Mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) lead the crew out to sea, not to return until they’ve filled 2,000 barrels with whale oil, which could take years. Pollard, who got this command through nepotism, and Chase, who deserves the command and is clearly the more competent seaman and leader, butt heads as they travel the world, with little success in their quest.
Later, after getting word that a pod of whales is in the outer reaches of the Atlantic Ocean, Pollard leads the Essex into uncharted waters, not realizing there’s also a 100-foot-long sperm whale there, seemingly defending its kin against humans, making for some nasty encounters.
This would lend itself well to visual effects and action, right? Wrong. The action is rarely impressive and often muddled. It’s also not always necessary, such as early on when Pollard takes the Essex into a storm to “test the men,” which, when translated from a Hollywood screenplay, means “to insert an extended big-budget visual effects sequence for no good reason.”
The flashback structure never lends worthwhile perspective to the story and, more appallingly, there’s plenty Thomas does not — and could not have — witnessed that’s included, meaning the entire framework of the narrative is at best disingenuous, a worst a lie. What’s more, director Ron Howard struggles to capture a sense of urgency within the crew, despite the life-or-death stakes. There should be a strong narrative drive that keeps our rapt attention, but it’s all just kind of meh, culminating in one of the flattest endings to an action/historical drama you’ll ever see. Better yet, don’t see it.