Full Disclosure: I am a bigger fan of Peter Berg the actor/producer than I am Peter Berg the director. I found Lone Survivor to be pandering and unintelligible, Battleship was a absolute disaster, and Hancock spoiled A-list performances and an interesting script from Breaking Bad show runner, Vince Gilligan. So heading into Deepwater Horizon, the notorious true story of the BP oil rig explosion and largest oil spill in American history, I was not exactly enthused to see what director Peter Berg did with the tale. To my surprise, Deepwater Horizon is a riveting salute to its heroes while also being a scathing account of the oil industry’s negligence, and it is Berg’s best work to date.
Deepwater Horizon is the name of an offshore oil rig buried hundreds of miles off of the Gulf Coast. It is one of many in the area, but unique in its engineering— it is not anchored and has underwater motors that maintain its stoic presence in the water. Even with this novel technology, the Deepwater Horizon is in desperate need of repair. When crew member Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) leaves his wife (Kate Hudson) and daughter to inspect and drill on the Deepwater Horizon with his crew, led by Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell), they discover that everything from the smoke detectors to the safety mechanisms are defunct. BP Executive Vidrine (John Malkovich), 40+ days behind schedule for tapping this money machine, could care less about the danger inherent in drilling while cutting corners, and he does whatever it takes, including spinning lies to the crew of the rig, to get started against their better judgment. This misstep proves deadly, and with over 100 souls aboard the rig, heroes arise to save as many people as possible and evacuate the rig safely before it explodes entirely.
Deepwater Horizon is an enthralling tale in and of itself, and Berg is wise to leave story undressed; it allows the actions of its heroes to shine through and realistically creates a larger emotional impact for how brave these men and women were when “the well from hell” reared its ugly head. The script and filmmaking also assumes an intelligent audience, exhibiting characters that are competent at their jobs without interrupting the inertia of the story to explain much to the audience. Sure, I had no idea what these characters were saying to each other half the time, with drilling jargon being thrown back and forth as if I knew what any of it meant, but it adds to the authenticity of the events on-screen and ultimately does not detract from the audience’s understanding of the disaster and how it occurred. Berg uses that momentum to his advantage, creating a sense of foreboding and dread that leads up to the inciting incident, and from there, it is an utter sprint to get off the rig that leaves the audience breathless. Berg’s direction of the camera, however, does not fully pay off. As with Lone Survivor, Berg often skips the first rule of action filmmaking: give your audience a sense of the geography and where your characters are relative to the action. Many times throughout Deepwater Horizon, I found myself wondering why one character was not subject to the same conditions as another character on the rig during the incident, and it was because these characters were in completely different places. Simple establishing shots can fix this, and Berg continues to eschew them for some reason. A minor gripe that does not ruin the movie, but it is a repeat mistake nonetheless.
The performances are similarly restrained, which serves the story well. Wahlberg’s turn as everyman Mike Williams never elevates beyond a former marine who leaps into action when the circumstances sour, almost by instinct. This understated approach is also employed by Kurt Russell as Mr. Jimmy; the plot does not need to be any more dramatic than it already is, so they play it straight and it is incredibly effective. The only performance I had trouble believing was John Malkovich, who sounds like he’s trying for a heavy Cajun accent, to very mixed effect. Kate Hudson as Mike Williams’ wife, stuck at home while watching the world around her husband burn on television, does a lot with very little. Her chemistry with Wahlberg is palpable, and the love between their characters personalizes the stakes, especially as Mike continues to rescue others at his own peril.
To use the word “entertaining” to describe Deepwater Horizon would be misleading and even offensive to those who lived through the events on that day in April, 2010. It is a very compelling, well-acted film that is successful in stirring up a breathless, emotional journey from start to finish. If Backdraft meets Captain Phillips sounds interesting to you, I highly recommend checking out Deepwater Horizon.
Deepwater Horizon opens in Philly theaters today.