By grafting disaster-film skin onto the bones of real-life tragedy, Deepwater Horizon accepts the inherent risk of hugging the exploitation line: “Eleven men died. That’s sad. But hey, we’ve got sweet explosions!”
Director Peter Berg’s latest concerns the 2010 blowout on the titular Transocean-owned, BP-supplying oil rig off the Louisiana coast, in which blown-off safety precautions led to a steroidal invocation of Murphy’s Law. Mud, water and oil erupted inside the rig with body-flinging force. Methane sparked decimating explosions. Months after its crew drilled the deepest oil well in history, the Deepwater Horizon’s demise spilled 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.
In the second of three collaborations with actor-producer Mark Wahlberg (Boston Marathon bombing biopic Patriots Day arrives in December), Berg continues with hard-charging chronicles of moments when everyday everymen (and women) find themselves in extremis. As in Lone Survivor, he pairs easygoing, nigh-journalistic authenticity with blunt-force verité filmmaking; we simply assume Wahlberg’s character drove a Toyota truck and that it’s not some sort of insidious product placement.
Deepwater Horizon’s second half is merciless, terrifying, flattening. Oil hemorrhages from every seal, crack and seam. Derricks clang against the rig like a child crashing toys together at bath-time. One explosion in particular seems to rattle the very core of the planet, after which Berg pans away to remind us of the helplessness with which we often watch such tragedies on TV. That these events unfold like nature striking back against greedy stewards is as close as Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand’s script comes to preaching. (Unlike Sully, another true-life tale currently in theatres, there’s no offensive, patently fake inflation of stakes or needless politicizing.)
In our digital day and age, Berg’s 40-minute dramatization of the horrors on the Horizon seems almost indiscernible from software. More than most modern movies, it matches the waterborne claustrophobia of The Abyss and inescapable conflagrations of Backdraft — proudly draped in vestiges of a vintage practical-effects era.
Better still, it never feels “cool.” Berg knows this is not pyromania. It’s a pyre. He opts for overwhelming sensory abstraction, down to dialogue you can’t possibly hope to understand. These are simply people trying to escape with their lives, some with the hope to forestall further spillage. Setting aside one up-close gruesome death, Berg forsakes shallow spectacle for honest heroics without much hokum.
Far less effective is Deepwater Horizon’s 50-minute buildup. It indulges in endless, impenetrable technobabble about kill lines, bladder effects and negative pressure — rendered even more unnecessary after an early scene of MacGyver-ian exposition in which a child illustrates the oil-drilling process with a Coke can, a knife, a straw and some honey. Why not insight into the mindset of men and women who would willfully work in such distant desolation (and the boilerplate back-home scenes don’t count)?
The first half also repeatedly hammers home a simple point we already know with the insistence of a drill crashing into the planet’s crust: Cutting corners will send things south in a hurry. In case you miss it, occasional bubbles burble at the base of the botched cement job that spurred the disaster — accompanied by composer Steve Jablonsky’s own spin on the Inception BWAH!
What follows is a disappointingly one-dimensional clash between the Transocean crew and the stingy suits from BP. On the side of common sense are chief electronics technician Mike Williams (Wahlberg), installation manager and tough-talking crew chief Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell (Kurt Russell) and bridge officer Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez). Brad Leland and John Malkovich, respectively, play BP rig operators Bob Kaluza and Don Vidrine (whose eventual manslaughter charges were later dropped). In one scene, Malkovich and Wahlberg mull over maintenance and indulge three metaphors — planes, trains and … hand-fishing? — in about 30 seconds.
It’s also a distasteful project for Malkovich to mimic the mentality of his Con Air villain in business-casual clothes, dragging out another heavily accented boogaloo and bluster with a Cajun drawl so absurd that even Justin Wilson might have found it excessive. “No mud? No flow? We gots to go,” he crows while challenging the crew’s masculinity by way of motivation. Just when you think he’s run out of ramekins with remoulade to slather over what he says, he grabs another, licking clean every last drip.
However ably, Wahlberg and Russell also play differently accented versions of their stock-in-trade roles — although Wahlberg has never felt more vulnerable than he does during an unexpected confrontation in the coda, and he brilliantly plays a bravura sequence with Rodriguez.
It’s often easy to zone out during the first half of Deepwater Horizon, but let the weight of the math behind the numbers flung about “the well from hell” hit you relative to lives lost. Losing 43 days and $50 million to a project would close up most shingles. To a $186-billion company like BP, that’s a .026% writedown. The $125,000 safety test they skip? A .0000672% oversight.Those are certainly the economics on Berg’s mind — all that danger, devastation and death occurred because someone was worried about one-millionth of a decimal point. Not the usual considerations of a story out merely to dazzle with a sizzle reel. Millions may have been spent to reenact the events of the Deepwater Horizon, but it’s a movie that mostly finds value in the right places.