In the Heart of the Sea Review

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By Justin Jasso (@jjasso007)

At one point, storytelling was the way in which we passed on culture and tradition, how we remembered those before us, and set examples for future generations. This was a long time ago, mind you, before there were things like paper to write on and computers to document on…before the Internet. Times change, but legends continue with some of these stories based on actual accounts. Such is the case with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the story of a whaling ship hunted by a white whale. Melville based his story on the actual accounts of the whaling ship, the Essex, and Ron Howard has brought it to the big screen with his latest film, In the Heart of the Sea.

It’s 1819, Nantucket, Massachusetts, and Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) has been a whaler all his life. He’s worked for the same company for quite some time and is expecting a promotion to Captain for the next whaling trip. But this time around, this is a refitted ship and it will have a ceremonial voyage, so the caption duties are given to George Pollard Jr. (Benjamin Walker), who has a family history of captaining ships. With positions set, the ship sets sail for whaling grounds, but is hit almost immediately with bad weather and a lack of whales. With time passing, a lack of supplies, and a need to fix their ship, they travel to the Galapagos Islands where they’re told of a whaling ground about 2500 nautical miles southwest towards Africa. Arriving, there are whales indeed, but one whale fights back: a ferocious white whale who destroys the ship, leaving the crew to be stranded among four life boats aimlessly floating in the ocean with no way of finding home. With little hope, minimal food sources, and a white whale slowly hunting them, the crew must do everything they can to survive and make it back home.

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What may seem to be an action drama set on the high seas actually plays out as a deep drama exploring human nature and the will to survive. It is less like Master and Commander and more like Life of Pi. Do any research into the Essex and you’ll find the story of what happens, and Ron Howard displays it brilliantly without remorse. At this time, whaling was a huge industry as whale fat was used for candles to light everything from street lamps to homes, and the whale population in the oceans suffered due to it. The fact that a white whale fought back and became the stuff of legend in amazing unto itself, but the fact that, being trapped on life boats through sun-scorching days and storms, and having to make the decisions to eat a fellow cast mate – to eat a friend – in order to keep surviving, pushes what we are as humans and leaves people having to deal with the horrors they witnessed, and participated in, later in life. Or is it worth continuing on in what seems like a hopeless situation – the choice of when you live or die – similar to what many people deal with today, but on a different scale. Howard brings out some of the darker aspects of humanity and leaves it to you to decide how you would respond given such circumstances.

The story of a film can’t be told without its actors, and a story of this complexity needs a cast equally proficient at delving into their characters and bringing forth the vulnerability and hopelessness that these real people of history experienced. Chris Hemsworth Is by far the biggest “name” in the film, but it isn’t quite a role you might envision him in. But Hemsworth steps up to the challenge, portraying a confident man adept at being a leader and stepping into that role when the time needs. He’s a rock for the crew and the one glimmer of hope that keeps the crew going. Benjamin Walker is great as a young captain trying to live up to his family’s name but severely unskilled for the mission at hand, not having the experience to deal with the situation in which they are placed. Cillian Murphy plays Matthew Joy, a first mate who has worked with Owen Chase over the years and knows his style and methods. He’s a confident compliment to Chase, providing experience and leadership given the situation. Other notable performances include Tom Holland as Thomas Nickerson, a cabin boy and the youngest member of the crew and Ben Whishaw who plays Herman Melville, who stops at nothing to get the true story of what happened on the Essex from the aged Thomas Nickerson, who is played by Brendan Gleeson. In the Heart of the Sea is an ensemble production, and everyone is needed to play their role to tell this true, and harrowing, tale.

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Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, and the fact that a white whale actually attacked a whaling ship and destroyed it proves just that. But the truth of what these men aboard the Essex experienced, having been out to sea over a year and being stranded in life boats for 95 days following the whale attack, the people they lost, and the acts they committed to stay alive are a true testament of the will to live and to the spirit being able to accomplish what needs to be done to survive. Ron Howard is as masterful as ever with In the Heart of the Sea, delivering everything from laughter to tears. This is the type of film that many aspire to be. These men are the type of people on whom we should all base our drive for life.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars


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