Let me tell you two stories.
Story One: In the early 19th century, a huge sperm whale hit a whaling ship while two thirds of the crew were several miles away hunting other whales. After several minutes, the whale backed away from the ship, and then rammed it again at speed, breaching the hull. It swam away, never to be seen again, leaving 21 men stranded with three small whaleboats, and what supplies they could retrieve, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Story Two: In the early 19th century, a white whale covered in scars from harpoons, the subject of many a dark rumor, viciously attacked a whaling ship while two thirds of the ship’s crew was attacking the whale’s pod. The whale chased the whalers through the Pacific, continuing to attack them as they sailed for safety.
Story One raises many questions. Did the whale intend to attack the ship? Or was it merely in the wrong place at the wrong time? Was it avenging the death of other whales? Or was it having a go at the object it bumped into by mistake? Was it a judgment from heaven against the men cruelly hunting down God’s creatures?
Story Two comes with answers. The whale was a known ship-attacker. It was taking vengeance for its fellow whales. And it was determined to destroy these particular whalers, as evidenced by its continuing attacks.
Story Two may be more dramatic—more potential for chase scenes and awesome whale footage—but it sounds like fiction. Story One is more terrifying, because it could happen, and there is no clear explanation.
It will probably come as no surprise that the first story is the true story of the Essex, which sank in the middle of the Pacific on October 28, 1820, as presented in Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, “In the Heart of the Sea.” The second is the story of the “Essex” as presented in Ron Howard’s film of the same name. And these two stories are the key to how an incredible true story became an incredibly terrible movie.
The film “In the Heart of the Sea” presents the tale of the wreck of the Essex through the eyes of Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) trying to find out the true story, for reasons that you might be able to guess. The Essex is said to have sunk when it struck a reef, but there are rumors that it actually might have been a whale. Melville eventually persuades the cabin boy of the Essex—Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), now an old man—to tell him the story of how they were wrecked by a whale, how they had to survive more than 90 days on the open sea with hardly any food or water, and the lengths to which they had to go before they were rescued.
In reality, the terrifying story of the Essex was told by Owen Chase, the first mate, in a book that was published within four months of his return from the ordeal. It was one of the most famous whaling stories of the 19th century. It was not a secret that the ship had been “stove by a whale,” nor was it a secret (or even as shocking a revelation as a 21st-century watcher might believe) that the crew resorted to cannibalism before their journey was over. But that did not fit the story the filmmakers were trying to tell.
In short, the film of “In the Heart of the Sea” turned the complex story of a whaling tragedy into a simple story of the evil merchants who owned and profited the whaling ships versus the noble poor men who had to do their dirty work for them.
The interaction between the captain and the first mate of the Essex, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), is the focus of the film’s narrative. Pollard is presented as the rich incompetent son of a powerful man, promoted over the qualified but lower-class Chase. In reality, Pollard was very competent, and most of his decisions were correct, but he lacked the character to enforce them when his first mate disagreed. Chase, on the other hand, was born to be a leader, but at the outset of the voyage arrogantly insisted on his own opinion. Chase, in particular, grew through the tragedy from a brash man with potential into an excellent leader, who would lead more of his own men to safety than Pollard would. Both men were in many ways admirable, but in others intensely flawed. But not so in Howard’s film.
Class certainly played into much of what happened on the Essex. Decisions as to who went into which small whaleboat were based on people being Nantucketers, non-Nantucketers, and non-white. And yet, in the film, the only classes are poor underlings and rich incompetents. So questions such as why did not a single African American make it home alive are glossed over, mainly by showing (incorrectly) that at least one did.
Watching the film knowing the facts of the story was, therefore, an intensely frustrating experience.
But maybe I am overly biased, since I loved the book it was (sort of) based on? The book was a readable though scholarly treatment of a very significant event in the history of whaling, and in the history of American literature, as it was an important inspiration for Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” And I shouldn’t expect a movie to pause to discuss the complex social structures of the Nantucket whaling industry, right? But even so, I don’t think I am biased when I say that the film is also very, very boring. Because the tale was reduced to the stereotypical struggle of the worthy poor man against the system, the storyline was set from the first scene, thus reducing the film to some beautiful ship visuals, some CGI whale visuals, and some nice Chris-Hemsworth’s-eyes-visuals.
In short, the film is a rambling over-produced one-dimensional fable, as forgettable as it was uninspiring.
Yet it did leave me with one thought—one that I think may be particularly valuable today. It’s easy to look at people through the lens of our favorite morality play. And to do that, we often simplify them into good guys and bad guys. It is much easier for us as Christians to discuss the faith of righteous Daniel than to discuss the faith of lustful Sampson, so we are tempted to look back in history and try to Daniel-ize men of the past. We can even Daniel-ize men of the present.
“In the Heart of the Sea” reminded me that the truth is complex, but we should not gloss over it. Just one example: We are preparing for a presidential election, and we have to look at men and women, some of whom we think we want to see in office, and others who we don’t. But we must remember that to lionize one and demonize the other does no favors to anyone. Because it is not only false—it is not only uncompellingly boring—it also makes it impossible to see real growth and real virtue in a fallen world.
Of course, I’m not sure that this lesson was worth the price of admission to “In the Heart of the Sea.” Maybe just read the book instead.
Image copyright Warner Bros. “In the Heart of the Sea” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of action and peril, brief startling violence, and thematic material.
Kaitlyn Elisabet Bonsell saw “In the Heart of the Sea” in IMAX-not-3D—the pinnacle of watching experiences. She should have instead walked Arthur the Labradoodle.