Back in 2013, during the opening weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival, I settled upon a unique double feature, an intriguing two-fer from Ron Howard. The far more highly buzzed of the two films was “Rush,” his biopic examination of the relationship between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), a pair of Formula One racers in the 1970s, engaged in a heated and legendary rivalry. Touted as an adrenaline shot thanks to racing sequences intent on strapping viewers behind the wheel and letting them loose on the track, the film also featured a surprising degree of passion off the course, especially when capturing the seemingly insatiable sexual appetite of Hunt. Howard has never been known for such raw sexuality, but the film surrendered to the intensity of Hunt’s nature as well as the more inwardly focused drive of Lauda.
Far more head-scratching though, was “Made in America,” the Howard documentary that followed Jay-Z around as he organized the Budweiser Made in America music festival. This was a behind the scenes, all-access play, perfectly suited to the idea of a figure like Jay-Z, but a rather perplexing choice for a filmmaker like Howard. Yet, the resulting film was a marvelous open-eyed treat. Howard took his outsider status in the world of hip hop and gave us—fans and non-fans alike—the kind of roving scope without drawing attention to himself or the camera. This was exactly what you imagine when you spout clichés like a fly on the wall or bird’s eye view. He made sure that we were there, but it felt like we were truly invisible, with exposure to a secret world.
None of this should be surprising. Howard has staked his claim as a noted Academy Award-worthy filmmaker (Best Picture and Best Director on “A Beautiful Mind” along with nominations in both categories seven years later for “Frost/Nixon”), and indulged a more eclectic cinematic pathway, bounding from more traditional blockbuster adaptations (“The Da Vinci Code” & “Angels & Demons”) to relationship dramedy (“The Dilemma”), but his brand of craftsmanship has always been the signature element.
What I have done here is set up the heart of a real dilemma in respect to his latest film, “In the Heart of the Sea.” This film shows the tale of a whaling ship in 1820, engaged in an epic struggle with a sperm whale, which became the basis for Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” You can sense right from the start that Howard wants to do for this story, something similar to his approach to “Rush.”
The desire is to guarantee the audience feels the palpable fear and majesty when being confronted by this monster from the depths of the sea. The whale was larger than any ship, able to nearly block out the sky with its ship-crushing fin. Even more frightening was the idea that, once attacked, this creature had the drive to strike back, to continue to pursue the rag tag collection of sailors drifting aimlessly in rowboats, and make them pay for their initial assault. These were human character traits, not psychological notions we would have applied to animals. On the flip side, the encounter drove the humans, especially the survivors, to retreat from civilized behavior—to become more animalistic in order to hold on to life.
And yet, it is with the human characters where Howard and the film fail. He seeks to provide a backstory for Owen Chase (Hemsworth, back again with his directing cohort), the first mate on the whaler who longed to captain his own ship, but was sidelined due to his family’s foundation in farming. He labored under a newbie captain (Benjamin Walker) with the right pedigree, but no real feel for ships or running a crew, so of course there were fiery exchanges between the two. The narrative presents a young boy named Tom Nickerson (Tom Holland—the new Spider-Man) who experiences this rivalry and then later in life (as Brendan Gleeson) recounts it all to Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw), but there is precious little life stirring in the frames. The whale, a computer-generated imagery (CGI) creation, has more nobility and awareness than any of the other characters, which is confounding. Howard’s large heart was simply not in this outing.