“In The Heart of the Sea”
What is it about sailing boats that captures the imagination? For thousands of years, before the invention of the engine, men (not that many women in this club) have sailed off into the horizon, out in the elements and yet utilizing those same elements, especially the wind. Those of us who are familiar with the Horatio Hornblower series (approximately the same era, early 19th century) have a feel for the incredible skillfulness needed by these crews, and especially, their captains.
The context of this movie is whale hunting. The world wanted the whale oil for fuel for its lanterns. But the animals weren't grown domestically---you had to go out and hunt them in their natural habitats, which meant that first you had to go find them.
This film utilizes the device of the flashback story. The tale is told from the perspective of a 14-year-old seaman's apprentice named Thomas Nickerson (Tom Holland), except now he's a wizened, curmudgeonly old salt (Brendan Gleeson) telling the story in retrospect, to a very interested young writer by the name of Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw).
We begin the film with a little poignant romance. Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) lives on a little farm with his lovely wife, who is pregnant with their first child, but the call of the sea is strong with him. She knows it, and reluctantly gives him leave to pursue his passion: being captain of a sailing ship.
Except the ship's owners, who had promised him a captaincy, balk instead, and tell him they want him to go out one more time as a first mate, because the Captain needs to be someone among the old whaling families of Nantucket, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker). This doesn't sit well with the impetuous Chase, but he's so eager to get his sea legs under him again that he reluctantly agrees, but right away we see potential conflict here. It's like hiring as the Associate Pastor someone who really wanted to be the Pastor, but came in 2nd. Ever heard of the Absalom Syndrome? (see 2 Samuel 15:1-6)
When we are finally underway and out to sea, the ship hums with purposeful activity, and we have fair skies and good wind and calm seas and the crew is feasting on the fresh provisions from port. But it isn't long before the weather turns. A big storm is coming, which makes Chase's seaman's instincts want to trim the sail and proceed cautiously. But Pollard is convinced that they need to bull ahead under full sail just to test the men's mettle, which Chase thinks is a terrible idea but he has no choice but to obey the Captain's orders, and sure enough, the ship incurs damage, which the Captain doesn't even have the good sense to blame on himself. (But then, self-doubt is seen as a sign of weakness, undermining the Captain's absolute authority, which can also be disastrous for the Captain on a long voyage. See “Mutiny on the Bounty.”)
It's when they finally find the whales that the real trouble starts. The great ship “Essex” comes across a whale so big that the whale not only destroys the little harpoon boats sent to capture it, but then the great ship itself is smashed by the whale's apparent revenge.
Now the adventure at sea changes course completely. Now it's a survival tale, of men a few men deprived of food, water, and shade, who are miles from anywhere navigable in their tiny rowboats. How could they possibly survive? And is it even possible that the great whale continues to stalk them, like some kind of behemoth of the deep? (See Psalm 74:13-14)
Director Ron Howard gives us a fish tail that challenges credulity, though it's supposed to be “mostly true,” and also becomes the basis for Herman Melville's “Moby Dick.” It's a grand tale told in broad strokes, especially alluring for those whose sense of adventure is stirred by old-fashioned tales of the high seas, and by the resourceful men who answered their siren call.
Questions for Discussion:
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Supply Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Mabank, Texas