Ron Howard is a long way from Opie Taylor and his first directing job for Roger Corman’s Grand Theft Auto. In the Heart of the Sea, is his 23rd feature film and won’t likely win him any major awards or become a box office bonanza. The film, an adaptation of the non-fiction book of the same name, about the sinking of the whaling ship The Essex, is supposed to have served as inspiration for Melville’s Moby Dick. I haven’t read the book so this review is not about the source material or the how effectively, or not, it is translated to the screen.
The film succeeds on many levels and fails on others. Howard creates a realistic world, much as he has in films like Cinderella Man, The Missing, Apollo 13 and others. As a filmmaker, Howard has a deft touch for detail and a keen ability to put the audience into the story, whether it is a space capsule, boxing ring, or in a boat adrift in the Pacific Ocean. Howard is an effective visual storytelling, but he goes a step further by taking the viewer on a psychological journey, the tormented survival of stranded crew members. Howard’s camera work is an active part of the story in creating a rolling and unsettled feel of the angry sea, the baking and unhinged existence on a still ocean carpet, and the starvation and hopelessness of at the end of the world. His camera uses a dull focus and captures the emptiness in the eyes of the crew as they teeter on passing onto another world.
Forty years ago, Steven Spielberg gave us another sea menace, the great white shark that terrified summer swimmers. Howards’ whale is as mysterious as Spielberg’s man-eating shark, usually seen in extreme close-up or long view, magnificently beautiful, but serenely powerful. The whale is vengeful yet not totally consumed with destruction as the Spielberg’s great white. That may be the Achilles Heel of this film. There is nothing to hate, the whale is not a monster or an effective villain. The battle between the captain and first mate provides some drama but that is lessened during the course of the film as the story shifts into survival mode. Howard resists conventional filmmaking where the angst is ramped up to create a big emotional payoff; rather he focuses on bringing the various story threads in for a soft landing.
Ron Howard has been an A List filmmaker for nearly 30 years. He and producing partner Brian Glazer carefully pick their material, sometimes serious dramatic subjects and other times more personal, character driven material. Edtv, The Dilemma and The Paper, while entertaining commentary and ensemble pieces, they won’t advance the filmmaking legacy of Ron Howard. While The Missing, Nixon/Frost and Rush were entertaining and solid filmmaking, none caught the attention of audiences. A Beautiful Mind, The Di Vinci Code and Apollo 13 were big hits and garnered some serious awards. At the top of his game, with a legacy of success films, a best directing Oscar, his own thriving production company, what is left for Ron Howard to prove? Like Steven Spielberg, what mountains are left to climb?
When I first saw the previews I my interested was piqued but I honestly didn’t think much about seeing the film. The preview brought back memories of Master and Commander, a highly praised film I didn’t enjoy or have ever seen again. Sea films are not high on my list but the mystery of a vengeful whale was what grabbed my interest, along with the reputation of the filmmaker. Ron Howard is a throwback. His films are intelligent even when he goes for broad laughs. He has major Hollywood clout and even though his films aren’t gazillion dollar moneymakers, his name can greenlight a film. Ron Howard’s mountain might just have been to make an engaging, entertaining film. I say he succeeded but he might want to find a bigger mountain next time.