I approached Ron Howard’s most recent film, In the Heart of the Sea, with trepidation. I am a fan of open boat stories in book and film. Whether it’s Messrs. Nordhoff and Hall’s contrast of libidinous disorder with Captain Bligh’s amazing return to civilization, the film versions of same, Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat, or The Old Man and the Sea, the man versus nature conflict crystallized in the impossible odds of men against the vast, beautiful, mysterious and powerful sea captures the self reliance so necessary to manliness. Man versus nature conflicts can be recharacterized as the conflict of man versus self; man, left alone before the antagonistic chaos of the world with only his ingenuity, his determination and his will to aid his survival. Self against self, not reimagining and reconstituting self as more modern analysis might have it, but self refining and improving self. He cannot win in this conflict, but maybe he can become less like he was before the encounter.
In the debate regarding the quintessence of man’s relationship with nature and his harmony within natural world, I favor Herzog over Kinski* in his thoughts on set of Fitzcarraldo: “We have to accept that [nature] is much stronger than we are. . . . Taking a close look at what’s around us there – there is some sort of a harmony. It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder. But when I say this, I say this full of admiration . . . . It’s not that I hate it. I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment.” This seems to me the right attitude. By all means, pit yourself against her chaotic malignance. Enjoy her deceptive beauty but be on guard for her majestic maleficence.
Can Howard capture this discordant harmony? His films aren’t bad. Some are quite good. But mostly he’s a mechanic. A highly proficient technical workman who combines cast and story and humor and pathos and a bit of excitement in a reliable formula to, most times, create a profitable film. His films are designed to be pleasing to the generic movie goer. Can he bottle the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder in a film depicting not only man against the soul-crushing immensity of the sea, but man against the largest of the planet’s mammals? And not a krill-eating peaceful giant lazily swimming the ocean and taking up conversation with Vulcans; this is a toothed monster of the deep using his cruel intelligence to hunt for men in boats.
I would warn the reader that spoilers follow, but what is there to spoil? The meat has turned. I wasted two hours of my time that you might preserve yours.
In the Heart of the Sea is told from the perspective of an old man who, as a young man, sailed on the Nantucket whaler The Essex. He is telling his reminiscences to Herman Melville who, having recently published Typee, has in mind a new novel about an albino sperm whale. The point of the Melville wrap around is, I think, intended to tease the viewer. Our imaginations are opened to the possibility of this wonderful tale if it were told by a competent story teller. But we will experience a very different tale. The tale told by Ron Howard.
When Melville heard of the sinking of The Essex, he may have imagined Leviathan arising from the deep to chastise man in and for his arrogance. Melville’s whale punctures the hubris of a great man, Ahab. Ahab has the defects of classical heroes, excessive confidence, too little fear, a disproportionate desire for honor and too much attention to his prior dishonor at the teeth of the beast. ItHots, on the other hand, tells the tale of modern men. They will be punished for environmental degradation, for love of money and for classism.
The important characters in ItHots are as follows:
- Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). Captain of the ship because he’s rich and the scion of the wealthy a Nantucket whaling family paying for the voyage. He’s a 1%er and deserving of our disdain. He is given the ship by its owners who are even more evil than he. We know this because they dress in black and have white hair and are very old and they all sit around a table and have impure thoughts about their money.
- Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). First mate. He should be captain, but he comes from a family of farmers instead of a family of whalers. Though he protests to the owners that he deserves the ship, they rebuke him as a man of questionable lineage into whose hands the valuable property of the three geezers could not be safely entrusted. But they promise him that if he procures 2,000 barrels of oil then on his next voyage they will make him captain. Chase, ever wily, requires they sign a contract to that effect. Although it’s never discussed in the movie, I suspect it is fear of this contract that caused the three geezers to call upon Moloch, in a ritual involving the blood of innocents and predatory lending, to send a white whale to kill Owen Chase before he could captain a boat of his own and fill the minds of other Nantucket farmers with dreams of endless spermaceti, upward mobility and the reversal of wage stagnation.
- Matthew Joy (Cillian Murphy). Second mate. He’s not a 1%er. He gave up drinking. Because this movie wasn’t effeminate enough.
- Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland, as young Nickerson, Brendon Gleeson, as old Nickerson). This is his first voyage. Chase and Joy are nice to him because they are not 1%ers.
- Henry Coffin (Frank Dillane). Pollard’s cousin. He’s also a 1%er so he hates Chase and sucks up to the Captain.
Hemsworth isn’t the most interesting actor, but Murphy and Gleeson are great. Add to that cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (of Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours and Dredd) and we should have the makings of a good movie. But that’s before accounting for Howard.
Howard and His Flaws
Getting back to Howard and his flaws, a major part of the problem is that he does, and only does, sentiment and relationships. Howard writes for women regarding subject matter that will appeal to men. ItHots takes that experiment to its zenith, a chick flick about guys hunting whales. It’s an experiment so bizarre as to almost be interesting. Almost. To lay on the sentiment, ItHots has many, many relationships. There are relationships between Chase and his wife, between Chase and Nickerson, between Nickerson and his wife, between Chase and the Captain, between Chase and Joy, between Chase and the anthropomorphized whale. We don’t care about any of them. None of them contain the seed of an interesting story that Howard cares to tell in this film. Most shocking is the relationship missing from the film, between the men and the sea. The sea is absent as a character. We should be assaulted by its terrifying vastness. But it’s just some splashy wet stuff next to the boat.
So the ship sets sail. But wait a moment, the sail is stuck. It’s not rolling out. HOW WILL THE SHIP GO ANYWHERE WITH A ROLLED UP SAIL!!!! Chase climbs the mast and cuts the sail free. This is action. This is exciting. This encapsulates the perils of whale hunting. This movie is great. If I were on board I would celebrate with a drink and a smoke. But the men of The Essex appear to be teetotalers which, of course, was common among whalers of the 19th century.
Now that Chase has shown he is the man for the job, it’s important to show the incompetence of the Captain. Cue a violent storm. Oh no!! The Captain does something stupid and breaks the boat. No doubt had Chase been the captain it wouldn’t have gotten broken. Maybe the investors should think about that? This movie is very exciting, what with Chase climbing up masts and Pollard breaking the boat. I could watch this for hours. Maybe at some point we will see some whales. And we do. Oh joy. “Thar she blows”. Actually they never say this in the movie. It’s probably inauthentic, like drinking and smoking.
So they kill a whale. The only whale they kill in the first year of their journey. Chase is despondent. If he doesn’t get more whales he’ll never be captain, and then he can never be happy. Fortunately, the whalers come across an exotic foreign gentleman who tells them of a sea of whales. Flukes upon flukes; but the area is far out into the Pacific. Nearly at the edge of the flat earth. Well, they don’t say that. But Ron Howard was thinking it. After all, this was an era where men drank and smoked and whaled (if they were aboard ships other than The Essex). They must have believed the world was flat.
So the men journey out to the edge of the flat earth and, behold, here there be dragons. Hundreds of sperm whales cavorting in the sea. The whalers are ecstatic. They’ll fill the hold and get home early. The whaling boats set off. But for the computer-generated imagery this would be the best part of the film. Chasing down a whale involves four men rowing in a 30 foot boat with a boatsteerer and a boatheader and a harpooner standing in the bow. The harpooner will throw a stick with a sharp metal point on it into a 40 ton, 50 foot, toothed predator and the men will tire the beast and kill it. How is that even possible? But because this is interesting the film spends no time on it. Instead, the whale hunt shows us the Captain attacking a cow nursing her calf. Because early on in filming Moby Dick was asking Ron Howard, “What’s my motivation.” And Ron said “You’re Leviathan. You’re here to chastise man for his arrogance and lack of faith, hope and charity.” And the whale said, “That doesn’t work for me.” And Ron said, well what about vengeance; what if Captain Pollard attacks your wife and kid.” And the whale was like, “Ok. I can work with that.”
So, now we have a really bad Orca remake without Richard Harris or Bo Derek but with lots more CGI. The giant angry albino whale gets really mad and stoves the boat. The men abandon ship on three whaleboats.
Thus far we’ve had no lessons on manliness. Chase is big and strong and a good sailor, but he comes off as peevish and jealous of Pollard’s authority. Pollard is a silver spooned unqualified rich guy playing captain. Joy is off the sauce so he has nothing to add. Nickerson’s just a kid. Nobody is smoking or drinking and we’ve only killed one whale. This movie is great.
So surely we’re going to get some real deal manliness now that we’re in open boats? These men spent more than 90 days on the open sea with limited supplies in three 30 foot boats. A few men were left (by their choice) on an uninhabited atoll, and one boat was lost at sea, but two boats made it back to civilization. That doesn’t happen by accident. But do we have men navigating, plotting their path back home, rationing food, planning their survival? No. They just kind of float around, take naps, get some sun.
And then, Moby Dick appears again. Orca’s been chasing them! He circles around Chase’s boat, slowly, eyeing his mortal enemy. Half of the audience begins chanting “Chong Li! Chong Li! Chong Li!” The other half of the audience raises her eyes from her Kindle in puzzlement. Is this the end for our noble teetotaling sailors? Chase has fashioned a harpoon, and when Moby Orca breaks the surface of the water mere feet from Chase, Chase is ready. But he looks into the whale’s eye and, like President Bush’s meeting with Vladimir Putin, he sees his soul. And his heart breaks for the anthropomorphized angst and existential crisis he has created in the whale. He lowers his harpoon. Faced with a flaccid harpoon the whale recognizes his own white whale is hardly worth the effort. He swims off, sated, knowing his enemy must live with himself.
The men splash around in the water. Avail themselves of the custom of the sea.** Commit suicide.*** Some die from exposure and dehydration. The rest are rescued.
Back at civilization the old geezers are concerned that if the world knew that whales were more manly than New Englanders, men would be afraid to go to sea. Were this true whaling ports would relocate to Southern states. So they ask Chase to lie. He agrees, but is sad. But Captain Pollard won’t lie. He tells the truth because he has grown on their journey and near death at sea. And though he is still an evil 1%er, and the eater of his cousin, he will not lie on behalf of geezers any longer. He will tell the truth and the working whaling men of the world will unite. This movie is very moving and great.
Chase goes home to his wife. He has a daughter and he’s done whaling. He’ll be a merchant ship Captain and sail on his own terms. And maybe, as a businessman, he’ll develop a spile to be used to tap the oil from the majestic beasts of the sea. And sperm whales will swim in great shoals and men will swim up next to them on the backs of porpoises with buckets in hand made of biodegradable non-petroleum-based plastic and tap ambergris and spermaceti from the peaceful beasts. He might float that idea to the old geezers. But they would never invest in such a noble dream. Instead they’ll move west. And drill for oil. Despoiling the land as they despoiled the sea. Because in this perverse reimagined world of history past, men didn’t build America they destroyed it.
*Werner Herzog in the documentary “My Best Fiend” recounts his disagreements with Klaus Kinski (borrowing footage from Les Blank’s documentary Burden of Dreams) respecting man’s relationship to the natural world. Where Kinksi saw an erotic harmony in nature Herzog saw . . . something different.
**When Nickerson reveals to Melville cannibalism in the open boats his wife overhears. She didn’t know. Nickerson cries. His wife cries. “I love you, Pumpkin.” “I love you, Honey Bunny.” This movie keeps getting better.
***A scene where the men on the Captain’s boat draw straws to determine who will be eaten and who will be the executioner again provides an opportunity to investigate tragedy and man’s decision making at the edge of survival. But like everything else in this film, Howard botches it. In Howard’s version Coffin shoots himself so his boat mates can eat him completely misapprehending the protocols implemented by the sailors.