Like first mate of the Essex Nantucket Owen Chase, I too am an oil man, second generation. I write this review of Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea from a dock in the New York harbor, with a barge hauling diesel a few feet from me, waiting to cast lines, and to my rear a ship out of Cypris loading gasoline.
Much has changed in this industry in the nearly two-centuries since the sinking of that ill-fated frigate. Never have I had to head into the hollowed cranial cavity of a cow’s cadaver, scooping spermaceti by hand, nor held in the same a harpoon, hurled strongly, nor hoisted sails (sadly).
Then they hunted sea-serpents, great dragons of the depths. Now we hunt for his blubber but the single Midgard Serpent, our spears stronger, longer; who, like the White Whale, extracts due vengeance upon the hubris of man, at least according to the pundits and politicians in Paris, our poets and modern-day myth makers all.
But in spite of such separation, the similarities hammer hard through my heart the nail of nostalgia, stir in my soul such sehnsucht, such romance! Transported from the theater, the reels returned me to the memory of standing on the shore as the great squall Sandy first made landfall, baptized by it waters, having just been hired. I’ve shared in much of their happiness and some of their hardship.
I’ve tasted the same salty spay of the Atlantic: beneath the summer’s sun refreshing, as was the breeze brought on by the boat’s swift speed; during December’s dark nights biting, my hands submerged beneath the winter waves, the winds frigid on my face. I’ve seen spills of tar-like asphalt, catfeed, heating oil, kerosene, and naphtha, all slopped together, floating in sheens an inch thick over the surface of the Arthur Kill. I’ve seen folk die, too many times; I’ve seen remains you could barely identify as human. Heart of the Sea shows the industry, through the lens of ages past, simply as it is, for good and for ill: the danger, the greed, the politics… and the thrill, the upward mobility, the way to a better life headlong into hard weather and harder work.
The film is Howard’s best since his last story of shipwreck and survival, Apollo 13. Every shot he paints with a perfect palette, from the opalescent oceans to the scrimshaw skies to the jaundiced flames. He imbibes in the film through his framing a sense of scale every bit as epic as the fiction it inspired. Before the credits roll, a quote attributed to Nathaniel Hawthorne reads, “Melville has produced for the American people in Moby Dick an epic worthy of Homer or Dante.” Howard doesn’t quite reach such lofty heights; Heart of the Sea will not be regarded as the example par excellence of American cinema. But it is nevertheless an epic worthy of Scott or Spielberg.
It’s one problem is it’s pacing. The film’s grand set piece, the encounter with the White Whale and the sinking of the Essex, occurs about halfway through. Upon an initial viewing this could be mistaken for the finale, with the entire second half of the movie coming across as a strangely elongated ending. It sets up expectations for an even more calamitous climatic conflict, one which history dictated never comes. Unlike the story of Ahab, the story of the crew of the Essex is one of survival, reconciliation with one another in the face of death, and renewed reverence for the awful and awe-inspiring power of nature. But it is not a story of revenge, surprisingly shown as Hemsworth’s Owen Chase, the fiendish fish feet from him, lays down his harpoon.
There’s been sadly little chatter regarding Heart of the Sea. It stands too closely in the shadow of Star Wars, the whole world waiting in such anxious anticipation of that epic set in a galaxy far, far away that they’ve paid no attention to one set a long time ago off our very shores. I’ve not seen The Force Awakens yet, but given the quality of In The Heart of the Sea I’d not be surprised if the latter ends up being the better of the two December releases, even if few moviegoers bother to see it sadly. As for me, as I wait the ten hours in line for the opening of the long awaited space opera, I’ll be sure to mention to my fellow popular culture aficionados that, instead of multiple repeated viewing of the same film ad nauseum over the next few weeks, make one of those planned pilgrimages to the cineplex a trip to the Heart of the Sea instead.