One of the great nautical tales in American history has finally made it to the big screen. Nathaniel Philbrick’s historical book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex recounts the unfortunate plight of Nantucket whalers. After a large sperm whale destroys their ship, the survivors drift for 3 months aboard small whaleboats in the Pacific Ocean. As I read the book, I remember thinking, “This would be an amazing movie…”
I’m rather picky of Hollywood film adaptations, particularly when real history is involved. As a historian (of sorts), the accuracy of what actually happened is important to me. Philbrick’s well-researched book is clearly represented in the screeplay by Charles Leavitt, albeit with a few Hollywood moments. This film wonderfully depicts an 1820 sea voyage and portrays certain aspects of the whale oil business quite well. In today’s culture in which environmentalism plays a key role from business to politics, the idea of a film depicting whale hunting seems about 30 years too late to hit the theaters. However, Leavitt’s script admirably allows the culture and ethos of the 1820s to be the culture and ethos of the 1820s, without becoming preachy about the evils of hunting whales.
One aspect added to the film that was not in the book is Herman Melville (played by Ben Wishaw). The author of Moby Dick did indeed base one aspect of his great novel on the tragedy of the Essex, but to include him in the narrative of the film is a distraction. Rather than stay with the plight of the whalers on the open sea, cutting back and forth to Melville’s discussion with the last living Essex survivor diminishes some of the drama and tension. The Essex and her whalers are their own story, and bridging their events to Melville downplays the importance of their own whale and experiences (the same could be said of the recent Hobbit films, which unashamedly sets the table for The Lord of the Rings).
Visually, the cinematography successfully catapults viewers onto the deck of the ship, although some of the CGI ocean looked like…well, CGI ocean. Ron Howard’s direction, particularly in the more perilous scenes, is top notch, and the edits are quick and chaotic. The one successful whale hunt on screen is electrifying, and the filmmakers strike a proper balance between the thrill of the hunt and the plight of the whales. However, the processing of the whale blubber is tamed a bit, but after all, this is a PG-13 movie. Likewise, the later cannibalism is not shown on screen, but part of a narrative.
The pace of the film seems a bit quick for such a long journey. One moment the ship is east of South America. A second later, they’ve already rounded Cape Horn and are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Similarly, drifting for three months in a small whaleboat doesn’t seem like a big deal, as the film seems to be rushing to a close. I would love to see a 3-hour version of this film.
Other than a few characters, we don’t really get to know many of the crew, and it is difficult to be sympathetic with characters we barely know. Cillian Murphy's character, (2nd Mate Matthew Joy) was sorely undeveloped. Had the flashbacks to Melville and the surviving crew member not been in the film, perhaps time would have allowed us to get to know the crew a bit more than we do.
One primary theme in the film revolves around coming to terms with decisions and situations one has had to face in the past. Redemption, acceptance, and love are all connected to this theme, particularly the repercussions of not dealing with them. Some might argue these themes resemble those in Moby Dick. I can’t disagree with that.
Despite the great visuals, solid acting (Brendan Gleeson and Michele Fairley are standouts), and the story of all stories on the open sea, I keep wondering if this film can’t decide if it wants to be Moby Dick or the story of the Essex. This is a film that doesn’t seem to understand itself.
The novel Moby Dick begins with, “Call me Ishmael.” At least that story knows what it is.
(c) 2015 Michael C. Voigts
"I would like to know what he meant by coming to us, and why we did not instead go to him. We were the ones in need, and the usual custom is not for the rich to come to the poor, even when they want to help them....That we go to him was more fitting, but there was a twofold obstacle. Our eyes were darkened, yet he dwells in light inaccessible; and lying paralyzed on our mats we could not reach the divine height. That is why our most gracious Saviour and Healer of souls both descended from his lofty height and dimmed his brilliance for our weak eyes."
(Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons for Advent 1:8)
Translated from the Latin by Irene Edmonds, Wendy Mary Beckett, and Conrad Greenia OSCO
Taken from Bernard of Clairvaux: Sermons for Advent and the Christmas Season
I don’t want to write this.
In fact, it would be too easy to keep my thoughts to myself, for after reading this, you may not like me. The problem is that I care too deeply about pastors and ministry staff not to share this.
Countless writings from blog articles to books have focused on the spiritual lives of pastors and other church ministers. This is a good thing. Ministers need to have dynamic relationships with Jesus. We need to encourage pastors and ministry staff to pray, to read the Bible daily, and to engage in other means of grace.
“Means of Grace.” It’s a term many Wesleyan/Methodists use to describe activities that place us in a position to be open to the working of God in our lives. Worship, the Lord’s Supper, and fasting are other activities that open up our hearts to God.
So is financial giving.
When I served as the Director of Alumni at Asbury Seminary, I was dumbfounded by a recurring theme during our annual phonation conversations. It was common to hear alumni who were in ministry share that simply working at a church replaced the need to give to that church (or to the seminary), since their salaries were low. Others shared that their monthly student loan payment replaced their tithe.
A church employee (including an ordained clergyperson) who doesn’t regularly give - regardless of the compensation - probably sees his or her position at the church as a job and not as a ministry. To me, that reeks of spiritual insincerity.
There, I said it.
The issue isn’t about demonstrating support for the church. It’s about giving as a means of grace. When pastors and other paid ministry staff support the church they serve, they’re able to be in a position for God to speak to them, just as praying for the church does. This only enhances their relationship with Christ and their capacity to be a blessing to others.
Pastors and other paid ministry staff need to get over the victim mentality that sometimes comes with a low compensation. If God has called us to ministry, God will take care of us. Daily Bread is not Daily Steak, and sacrifices are necessary from time to time. However, the call of God to ministry is a joyful sacrifice that we agree to make when we answer that call to ministry. When we financially support the churches we serve, we’re demonstrating to God that we trust God in all things, even in paying the bills.
Prayer, reading the Bible, fasting, and other means of grace are sacrifices of the time God has given us. When it comes to financial giving, we sacrifice part of the income God has given us. They both draw us closer to Jesus. These sacrifices actually become joys, because God is glorified through them.
And isn’t that what ministry is all about?
(c) 2015 Michael C. Voigts