First-time readers of Moby-Dick, beware: Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World, a documentary that premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on PBS, just cold gives away the book’s ending without so much as a spoiler alert.
But if you already know the ending—or have an urgent need to know it—this film by director Ric Burns is well worth your time. Using archival footage and recreated scenes as well as shots of crew lists, scrimshaw, and other artifacts, Burns interweaves a short course in the history of the U.S. whale fishery with the story of Herman Melville’s Pequod and that of the real-life Essex, the whaleship upon whose 1820 journey Moby-Dick is partly based.
An impressive array of historians and Melvillians appears in the film, including Nathaniel Philbrick, whose book In the Heart of the Sea is the definitive history of the Essex; Melville biographer Andrew Delbanco; and Eric Jay Dolan, author of Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America.
Making a brief appearance as Melville (or possibly Ishmael) is Robert Sean Leonard (House’s Dr. James Wilson). He was great and all, but when I think young-Melville, I think Zach Galifianakis. You?
Margaret Guroff is editor and publisher of Power Moby-Dick.