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Non-Review Review: The Heart of the Sea

The Heart of the Sea is well-made, and full of all manner of interesting dynamics and clever set-ups. Pitting man against nature is always a sure recipe for drama, and stranding a bunch of people in the middle of the ocean adds all sorts of unique tensions. Survival drama is powerful, resonating with key themes about man’s endurance and limitations. Putting a bunch of talented actors in boat together under the eye of a talented director will get you half-way to a good film.

The problem with The Heart of the Sea is that it lacks focus. It is a film that is never entire sure what it is about, or how it wants to be about it. Is it an environmentalist fable about mankind’s hubris and arrogance? Is it the tale of the lengths to which a man will do to survive? Is it a tale of two competing egos and the live entrusted to their care? Is it a secret history of Moby Dick, the great American novel? The answer is that The Heart of the Sea tries to be all of these things, but never quite consistently and never entirely thoroughly.

Good Whale Hunting. (Courtesy of Niall Murphy.)

Good Whale Hunting.
(Courtesy of Niall Murphy.)

The Heart of the Sea works best when it embraces simplicity. Ron Howard is a director with a knack for clearly and cleanly communicating potentially complicated information to the audience. Howard’s camera is very good at conveying everything that the audience needs to know about a process, boiling it down to a series of quick cuts and tight shots. (Indeed, so many of Howard’s films are arguably about engines – whether the space craft of Apollo 13, the motor car engines of Rush or even the human brain in A Beautiful Mind.)

There are points in The Heart of the Sea where Howard’s direction works very well. He expertly conveys the mechanical process of whale-harvesting during an early diversion, expertly demonstrating how mankind’s exploitation of the planet could take on something of a conveyor belt mentality even before the advent of trawls or factory fishing. Similarly, the inevitable scenes of disaster and devastation are effective and clear; it is always apparent what is happening and why, with a minimum of cross-cutting or confusion.

Roping 'em in...

Roping ’em in…

It is easy to downplay the skill involved in this approach, the efficient craftsmanship that defines Howard’s work. Howard’s films have an endearing clarity to them, a sense of purpose. This is not always a good thing; A Beautiful Mind arguably suffers for over-simplifying its subject and offering too neat a portrayal of a complicated situation. However, when it comes to a disaster film set on a nineteenth century whaling ship, that clarity works very much in the favour of the film.

Howard is assisted by a fantastic cast. Chris Hemsworth is very well cast, based off his work with Howard in Rush. Hemsworth is perfectly suited to the role of a grizzly working-class man of integrity, sporting enough muscle mass to support the chip on the character’s shoulder. Distinguished supporting actors like Brendan Gleeson, Ben Wishaw and Cillian Murphy serve to round out the cast; in each and every case, the actors bring more to the role than is strictly required.

A whale of a time...

A whale of a time…

The problem is not the direction or the cast, but the script. For all the clarity of purpose that Ron Howard brings to the direction of the film, the screenplay is never entirely sure what the film is supposed to be about. At its most basic, the film plays as a cautionary tale about mankind’s arrogance and hubris; it is the tale of a whaling ship that was beset by disaster when its two most senior officers embarked upon a risky endeavour to fill their holds with precious whale oil.

This is a simple story, but no less effective for it. There are moments when The Heart of the Sea skilfully explores the idea of whale oil as a lubricant for human greed; as if the engines of capitalism run on the blood of the world around our cast. This suggestion is seeded throughout the film, whether it is the establishing shots that demonstrate its commercial importance in mechanical terms, or the observation in the final act that mankind has found a way to harvest oil from the soil as much as the sea.

Sorry to keep harp(oon)ing on about it...

Sorry to keep harp(oon)ing on about it…

However, the film lacks enough focus to draw that particular theme out. Instead, the narrative is quickly cluttered with narrative distractions and dead ends. Perhaps the most obvious is the distraction that adorns the poster, the promise that The Heart of the Sea will expose the true story behind Moby Dick. The movie’s fixation upon the tale of the Essex as the secret origin of Moby Dick is perhaps its Achilles heel. The connection to Moby Dick becomes the movie’s own white whale, both literally and figuratively.

The movie is framed by a conversation between Herman Melville and a survivor of the Essex disaster. While this provides an excuse to put Brendan Gleeson and Ben Wishaw in a scene together, the framing device quickly becomes distracting. Melville seems to yap incessantly about the story he has yet to write will be a literary masterpiece, and about how the story of the Essex taught him the true meaning of courage. The film ladles on this heavy-handed dialogue, leading to extended sequences where it feels like Ron Howard is establishing a Moby Dick shared universe.

First mate, not best mate.

First mate, not best mate.

This cause two significant problems for The Heart of the Sea. The most obvious is that it kills the pacing and undercuts the narrative. There are points at which it feels like The Heart of the Sea is suggesting that the only reason that the terrible suffering of the crew should be told is because it connects back to Moby Dick; there is a sense that the film feels like this tragedy is only worth exploring because of its connection to a great work of American fiction. If that is the case, the film would be better focusing on Melville than the Essex.

The other problem is that  it creates a certain set of narrative expectations against which The Heart of the Sea must struggle. Even people who have never read Moby Dick are familiar with the basics, from the opening line through to the names of the key characters. The revelation that a true story was the secret basis of Moby Dick means that the audience expects certain beats and developments. In particular, the audience demands a great white whale. The great white whale becomes a focal point of The Heart of the Sea, when more interesting things happen around it.

Off the boat.

Off the boat.

With all of this playing out in the background, there is also a sense that Ron Howard is falling back on his own particular tropes. As with a Rush or Frost/Nixon, there are points when The Heart of the Sea nods towards becoming a two-hander exploring class and privilege in nineteenth-century whaling, pitting a working-class first mate against an upper-class captain as the situation begins to escalate. Unfortunately, as with everything else in the film, there is not enough time to properly develop this; it ends up more of an idea than a theme.

There are several points when The Heart of the Sea comes close to working. Those points are when the film boils itself down to its most basic elements, decluttering the decks and unloading a lot of the surrounding baggage. The survival sequences are quite harrowing, and the action sequences are suitably thrilling. There is a minimum amount of angst surrounding the harsh choices made at sea, although the impact of those sequences is somewhat blunted by the need to return to the framing sequence.

Letting the wind out of his sails...

Letting the wind out of his sails…

The Heart of the Sea has the makings of a good story; it just turns out that makings of Moby Dick are perhaps the least satisfying elements.

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