“In the Heart of the Sea:” A Messy Moral Tale on the Briny Deep

by Daniel Stout

“In the Heart of the Sea,” directed by Ron Howard, we witness the enduring effect of the classic novel Moby-Dick by the elusively misunderstood novelist Herman Melville. Because Melville wasn’t recognized by literary experts nor citizens until 40 years after his death, the author’s mindset and motives have been hard to pin down. Howard, then, displays a mature moral outlook on a story that Melville scholars have yet to reach consensus on. Not the precise story of Moby Dick (it’s missing Captain Ahab that dies trying to kill the great white whale), it’s actually based on a non-fiction book by Nathaniel Philbrick, a maritime history of the Essex, a ship capsized by the great white whale inspiring Melville’s haunting story. Hollywood accolades may elude Howard for this film, but critical praise is well earned: he captures Melville as moral philosopher, probing the depth of several human dilemmas.

First mate Owen Chase, passed over for captain by George Pollard, Jr, the son of the ship company owner, reluctantly obeys an elitist commander at odds with nature, and motivated solely by the profits from whale oil. Chase knows he is the better seaman and, more importantly, has a much greater affinity for the sea and the whales they hunt. In a heart-stopping scene, an eye of the great white fixes on Chase, and a deference for the mammal grows, unlike Pollard, he’s no longer convinced of the invincibility of man, but understands love can dissolve the culturally-based conflict with nature. The climactic scene comes late in the film. Will Pollard break a taboo of maritime business, by admitting to the company investors that a shipwreck and thus colossal financial loss is attributed to a fish? Furthermore, does the whale deserve freedom or eventual extermination? Foundational questions broaden into larger issues, some economic, some religious, regarding how much dominion humans should have over the earth.


LDS viewers will appreciate the film on this level given Genesis 1:28 : “let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Some have interpreted this as license to control the environment for mostly human use, while Doctrine and Covenants 77 refers to the spirit in all living things. Of beasts there “is spiritual being in the likeness of that which is temporal; and that which is temporal in the likeness of that which is spiritual…” LDS interpretation about responsibility to the environment varies widely, and Heart is a fulcrum of reflection on the subject.

For Howard, nature is the domain of pursuers of the perilous despite ambiguous motives. As film auteur, he revisits this theme in Cocoon, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, and Backdraft where risk-taking is lauded for its own sake, suggesting value in laying one’s life on the line because the act itself is unequaled in human experience in creating a level of human development few attain, much less pursue. Like Moby Dick, it’s about challenging the unbeatable, and Howard explores the deep depths of the psyche to understand the whalers’ motivations, thus it deserves a place in the psychological action genre as well as the adventure category, although the latter provides plenty of entertainment, as the ship is tossed to and fro, sails, are frantically cut loose, and deckhands fly overboard as the great whale bashes relentlessly into the port side and the starboard the next. As an education in whaling alone, the movie is fascinatingly instructive.

Howard takes us down thorny paths cluttered by moral dilemmas. Five sit in a dingy, drawing straws each day to see which one is shot in order to preserve water to keep at least one man alive until help arrives. Nephi says it is better for one man to perish than for a nation to dwell in disbelief, but if our ship went down, would we embrace this utilitarian ethic, or maintain the law never to kill? Still another conundrum arises when cannibalism becomes an option for survival. And then there is loyalty to authority. The captain makes bad decisions: how long are they tolerated? Heart is a synthesis of science and morality; a primer on nineteenth century whaling and the mythology of the conquering man.


Unfortunately, the film has not fared well in its first weekend at the box office. Cynically, I assume audience members were scared away by terms such as Moby Dick and Melville. Too literary perhaps for moviegoers seeking pure action. I’m not sure that Ron Howard cares because for those taking a close look, he he clearly captures a multidimensional piece of literature. The whale is the main character, a metaphor for the earth and our relationship to it. With the Essex in a shambles, Captain Pollard remarks, “Nature is subject to man’s waving hand of faith,” to which Chase responds, “Are you so sure after what you’ve seen today?”




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