Sunday, January 17, 2016

From the Standpoint of the Cod: Movie Review: In the Heart of the Sea

Humorist Robert Benchley once wrote about having to answer an essay question at Harvard about the Cod War between the U.S. and Canada by explaining that usually such papers examined the question from the U.S. or Canadian viewpoint: he was going to examine it from the viewpoint of the cod.

There are aspects to this film that make me think Benchley influenced this script: it's from from the viewpoint of the whale.

My wife and I both enjoyed Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea about the destruction of a Nantucket whaler Essex in 1820, and the survivor's attemps to survive, leading eventually to cannibalism.  Like the apocryphal New York Times headline: "End of the world: blacks, women hardest hit": the black and younger members of the crew made it to menu more rapidly than random chance, although Philbrick's book points out the reasons why this was not necessarily Eurocentrism at play.  (Being more poorly nourished, the black sailors likely succumbed more rapidly.)

The film is the first that I have ever seen in 3D.  (Yes, really.)  It does give it almost a live presentation feel especially when those flukes are about ready to splash you into another latitude.  It  is an exciting film to watch, and as much as you want to be angry at the whalers for killing the most majestic and intelligent creatures on the planet (after O, of course), it is difficult not to admire the courage of whalers of this period, as they risk life and limb in the rigging, and going on a Nantucket sleigh-ride.

The movie departs from Philbrick's very readable book in a number of ways that you will never notice unless you have read the book or have a reasonable skepticism of Hollywood cliches.  After smashing in the hull of the Essex, the whale did not really follow them across the Pacific trying to scare them senseless.  (At least there wasn't an electric bass playing.)  And whale oil does not explode.  The Essex stayed afloat for a day or so while the crew rifled it for necessary survival goods.  But it made for a nice explosive scene!

Another disappointment: a big part of why the survivors tried to float 4000 miles east to South America instead of a shorter float to the Marquesas was there were incorrect reports that the inhabitants were cannibals.  In retrospect, the irony of where that led them would have been too good to pass up.  I hope the scene was filmed, and was lost during final cut.

Another difference is the film's framing story with Herman Melville interviewing one of the survivors in 1850 while researching Moby Dick.  It's a nice way to tell the story from an eyewitness perspective.

We really enjoyed it.  Just make sure to order fish & chips not ribs after the film.

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