ReelBob: ‘In the Heart of the Sea’

By Bob Bloom

A vast majority of people can give you a bare-bones synopsis of “Moby Dick”: Captain Ahab is obsessed with finding and killing the great white whale that maimed him and bit off his leg.

More important, it is the novel’s philosophical and theological subtexts that have made it a timeless American classic.

But what inspired Herman Melville to write the novel? That is the crux of “In the Heart of the Sea,” an old-fashioned yarn that tells an epic story of adventure, redemption and survival at an unimaginable cost.

The film, set in 1820, deals with the New England whaling ship Essex, as it sails the oceans seeking the behemoths to kill them and melt down their fat for oil that lights the lamps of the 19th-century world.

From the outset, the Essex is beset with trouble. George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), an inexperienced captain, is given command because his family is the major benefactor of the ship’s owner.

His first mate is Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), who is resentful of Pollard In the Heart of the Sea.jpgbecause the owners reneged on a promise to give him command of the vessel.

Having no luck in the Atlantic, the Essex sails into little-known waters in the Pacific, where they come upon hundreds of whales.

But the ship is attacked and sunk by a giant white whale, forcing the survivors to man lifeboats and spend months sailing back to land. Along the way, they resort to extreme measures to ensure their survival.

In 1850, Melville (Ben Whishaw), who has heard stories about the Essex, seeks out the last surviving crewman, Tom Nickerson, now a reclusive alcoholic who is bedeviled and burdened by a terrible secret.

In need of money, Nickerson (a weary and saddened Brendan Gleeson), reluctantly agrees to tell Melville the complete and true story of the Essex disaster.

The movie, directed by Ron Howard, shifts from 1850 to 1820, as we see a young Nickerson (Tom Holland) eager to embark at sea. Chase takes him under the wing and instructs him about life on a ship and whaling.

“In the Heart of the Sea” is a solid adventure that fails to reach the heroic heights it aims for. The film’s uneven pace, at times, keeps you at arm’s length, while it moves toward reconciling its two plotlines.

The sea sequences are rousing and offer a good dose of adrenaline, yet they don’t inspire us as Howard surely intended.

The action scenes with the huge white whale, though impressive, are too brief.

All-around, the performances are fine; Howard seems to have tapped into something that, as in “Rush,” brings out the best in Hemsworth.

Gleeson’s forlorn performance holds your attention as he seeks absolution — from Melville, his wife or even himself — for the deeds that overwhelmed and scarred him for life.

Walker’s Pollard, who at the outset is a priggish class snob who looks down on his seamen, redeems himself with an act of courage at the finale, while Whishaw is a pushy, eager, but compassionate and comforting, Melville.

“In the Heart of the Sea” is a technically adept and sturdy movie with old-school sensibilities about man, beast and their natural order in the world.

Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. His reviews appear at ReelBob ( and The Film Yap ( He also reviews Blu-rays and DVDs. He can be reached by email at or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom. Other reviews by Bloom can be found at Rottentomatoes:


3 stars out of 4
(PG-13), mature themes, intense action violence

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