A film review by Craig J. Koban October 8, 2016

RANK:  #25

DEEPWATER HORIZON jjj

2016, PG-13, 107 mins.

 

Mark Wahlberg as Mike Williams  /  Dylan O'Brien as Caleb Holloway  /  Kate Hudson as Felicita Williams  /  Kurt Russell as Jimmy Harrell  /  John Malkovich as Vidrine  /  Gina Rodriguez as Andrea Fleytas

Directed by Peter Berg  /  Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, based on the New York Times articles by David Rohde and Stephanie Saul

Director Peter Berg makes for an interesting case study.  

When he brings his A-game (FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS and the horribly underrated THE KINGDOM) there's no denying his skills as an authoritative and impactful filmmaker.  When he doesn't (BATTLESHIP) you're kind of left scratching your head while pondering why you even sat through his film.  

DEEPWATER HORIZON is his latest endeavor, a reality based disaster film that chronicles one of the worst environmental calamities of all-time when a massive off-shore oil drilling rig exploded on April 20, 2010.  The fireball was visible from several miles away, 11 crewmembers perished, and the resulting explosion led to the biggest oil spill in U.S. history, which in turn helped fuel the fires of a worldwide scandal. 

Berg resists sensationalizing the tragedy here in the way that, say, a Michael Bay would have reveled at.  He somehow manages to capture not only the sheer levels of panic and pathos that must have gripped the crew on board the Deepwater Horizon, but he also crafts a technically masterful film that simmers with such a horrific, gut punching veracity that rarely, if ever, dwells too much on artificial looking visual effects.  Now, DEEPWATER HORIZON is riddled with visual effects and, no doubt, a serious amount of computer generated fakery, but it's kind of remarkable how utterly seamless Berg makes it all here. From a level of pure filmmaking craft, DEEPWATER HORIZON is one of the most transfixingly immersive films that I've seen in 2016, and one that makes you forget that your watching a dramatic retelling of history.  For a majority of its 90 plus minutes, you feel as trapped within the hellishly gruesome and dire circumstances as those poor oil rig workers.  This is an atypical disaster film that never tries to find exhilarating entertainment value in its nightmarish calamity. 

 

 

Berg's film is mostly inspired by a series of New York Times investigative articles that dealt with the disaster in question, but he's wise enough to understand the necessity of honing in on the human element of this unbelievably sad story.  The film stars a robustly stalwart and solid Mark Wahlberg (an actor that, much like Berg as a director, has been the focal point of some splendid and horrendous film outings) as Mike, a loyal, hard working, and dedicated family man to wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) that - as the film opens - is prepping himself to be apart from his family for the next three weeks due to his stationed assignment on the Deepwater Horizon.  The rig itself is located 40 miles off of the coast of Louisiana and the film does a stellar job early on at relaying (a) what this rig actually does (via a rather nifty scene involving a breakfast discussion that Mike has with his daughter) and (b) the sheer isolation that men and women in this field have from their loved ones when on the job.   

Mike reconnects with his boss Jimmy (a reliably strong Kurt Russell) while on route to the vessel, and when they land Mark is deeply taken aback when he sees multiple malfunctioning equipment as well as some greedy and conniving BP oil and gas executives (one played by a deliciously snarling John Malkovich) that wish to cut every corner they can in order to ensure the rig's preparedness for an upcoming drill (which is a month overdue and costing the corporation money).  Predictably, Jimmy and Mike are flabbergasted by their higher ups and their refusal to follow modest safe guards, but the BP reps have it their way and the drill okay is given...which unfortunately leads to an uncontrollable surge of mud and gas up the pipe that causes massive explosions and multiple fires erupting around them.  It soon becomes abundantly clear that the Deepwater Horizon is indeed doomed, which forces everyone on board into action to try to find any means available and possible to get off it and save their very lives. 

One thing that Berg does with razor sharp precision is capture the daily ebb and flow of oil rig life.  DEEPWATER HORIZON cements us within the microcosm of Jimmy's and Mike's working environment, which is replete with multiple overlapping conversations that are decidedly high on techno mumbo jumbo that many in the audience may struggle at first to comprehend.  Yet, this grounds the entire film with a sense of immediacy and realism: You feel less like you're watching actors portraying characters because the film evokes a sensation that you're eavesdropping on actual rig workers doing their respective jobs.  I really appreciate it when a film of this massive scale and nature manages to get the smaller and more nuanced details absolutely right.  There's an argument to be made, though, that a film like this that starts off heavy on procedural particulars - not to mention expositional education - of what precipitated the disaster has the negative effect of slowing down the story's forward momentum, but it's nevertheless crucial to establishing the rig's work milieu as well as making us understand what caused the disaster in the first place.   

And Berg's startlingly realistic and impeccably choreographed recreation of the disaster itself is astonishing and frightening to behold.  What ultimately helps DEEPWATER HORIZON transcend itself away from the obligatory accoutrements of a standard order disaster genre flick is in how disturbingly real the rig explosion is ultimately rendered here and the dreadful life and death, split second decision making of the workers in order to stave death at any waking moment.  It wasn't just fire that these people had to contend with, but also flying projectile-like debris that could cut them in half as well as the surrounding waters themselves, which were often ablaze around the rig because of the oil spill.  There is, obviously enough, an irrefutable visual impact of seeing this disaster manifest itself in front of our eyes (it's impossible not to be utterly captivated and swept up by the limitless magnitude of it all), but Berg's film is not about ostentatious eye candy and cheap thrills.  He matter-of-factly presents this as a wide scale tragedy of unpardonable proportions that forced ordinary men and women to step up to the plate and find their inner courage to survive. 

The cast does wonders here to help sell the whole tone that Berg is aiming for here.  Wahlberg can be a real cipher as an on-screen presence: sometimes he's commandingly charismatic, whereas other times he can be distractingly wooden.  He seems like an ideal fit, though, for this material (re-teaming with Berg after LONE SURVIVOR) to play a headstrong, opinionated, proud, and resourceful man of action that makes Mike feel like an authentically rendered hero.  Russell is a breath of fresh air here as well, especially considering that he has become a far more compelling and textured actor as he's matured through the years, and here he relays a man of decades of pragmatic bruised knuckled know-how that believes that going with your instinctive gut is more important than anything a computer test could advise you on.  It's interesting to see him share a scene -  albeit a fleeting one - with his adoptive daughter Kate Hudson during one tender moment in the film.  Hudson isn't really given a substantial role to sink her teeth into here as Mike's grieving wife, but she's soft-spokenly tenacious here and becomes the audience viewfinder into the madness that's unfolding 

If DEEPWATER HORIZON were to have a weakness then it would be the manner that Berg and his writers make the BP reps bumbling incompetents and simplistically rendered villains to lash out at.  Subtlety here, especially when it comes to Malkovich's character, is pretty much AWOL (oil rig workers = noble and good, BP execs = gluttonous and bad).  That's not a huge distraction, though, because Berg more than makes up for it in the ways he doesn't shamelessly use the Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill for annoyingly manipulative and melodramatic effect.  That, and this film avoids commentary when it can: it's not trying to make too many value judgments on what happened.  Instead, DEEPWATER HORIZON shows great respect for the incalculably damaging accident at its core and those that died during it.  The impact of this event, both environmental and human, is really emphasized here, and at a very conservative and tightly edited 107 minutes, Berg's film doesn't wear out its welcome.  As a testament to common blue collar working man and woman valor, DEEPWATER HORIZON is a feverously intense and intrinsically moving salute to human resiliency in the wake of atrocious conditions sparked by preventable man made tragedy.  

The preventable man made portion is what's ultimately  most distressing about this film.

 this film.

  H O M E