Unlike some film critics, I have no outstanding Ron Howard issues. Maybe A Beautiful Mind (2001) was too on the nose as Oscar bait, and, yes, he directs with an audience and not any kind of auteurist ranking foremost in mind, but “A Ron Howard Movie” on the big screen doesn’t bug me. He’s hit doubles (Splash, Cocoon), and triples (Apollo 13), and, with his last film, Rush (2013), a home run, one of the best movies ever made about competitive sports. Reuniting with that film’s star, Chris Hemsworth, for an adaptation of one of my favorite recent history books, Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea (2001)–ahoy, mateys!
And he’s made from it…A Ron Howard Movie. One whose release was pushed back from March to today, which is always suspicious , yet, no worries. Four-squared, neatly carpentered, everything in place, from good CGI to handsomely burnished cinematography (by his Rush collaborator Anthony Dod Mantle) to production design, by Mark Tildesley, that effortlessly transports you back to the Massachusetts whaling colonies of the 19th century. In the framing device (it’s the kind of historical movie, one with a framing device), we meet author Herman Melville (Ben Whisaw), who, after one literary success, thinks he has another in the untold story of the whaleship Essex, sunk after an encounter with a particularly fearsome leviathan. Over copious glasses of whiskey, with a healthy sum of money on the table, Melville coaxes the truth from Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), who thirty years earlier served on the ship as a lad.
I should state that I’m a sucker for movies about angry, vengeful, pissed-off animals, particularly big ones. Jurassic World didn’t cut it for me, but In the Heart of the Sea spins an absorbing, fact-based yarn. Similar to Rush, Sea focuses on a clash of opposites, between first mate Owen Chase (Hemsworth), a farmer with a taste for risk, and captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), the son of the whaling company owner, who is untested and inclined to play by the rules. When months go by with just one whale spotted, killed, and culled for its oil (the young Nickerson, played by Peter Parker-to-be Tom Holland, has a key role in the delicate, messy extraction), Chase presses Pollard to take the Essex into yet farther waters, where an ill-tempered white whale is said to lurk.
The next 40 or so minutes of In the Heart of the Sea are Howard in his element. The action, pitting the crew against the not-so-mythic creature, is clearly conveyed and genuinely exciting. There’s enough physicality to the production and the editing to sell the computer-generated illusion of an unfolding disaster at sea, and I was completely satisfied. There didn’t need to be much more movie–but there is, and here Howard, at the service of history, founders in the doldrums along with the survivors. The acting and characterizations aren’t much more than two-dimensional (I didn’t see the movie in 3D, with a twinge of regret, as the cinematographer brought real finesse to Dredd) and Howard observes the PG-13 rating in depicting the pitiful depths of their plight.
The whale turns up again but the two-hour movie is effectively over at about the 80-minute mark. Howard, ever conscientious, rounds the story out with a conspiracy angle (the company tries to buy the whalers’ silence, fearing the trade will be disrupted by stories of whales that fight back), a nod to changing times (“Is it true oil is being found under the ground?”)–and, of course, the legacy of Melville’s masterwork, Moby-Dick. Fine–but, really, those 40 minutes were enough to lift Philbrick’s book off the page for me, and if nothing else I’m pleased Howard did the text justice.