DEEPWATER HORIZON (Movie Review)

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***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for prolonged intense disaster sequences and related disturbing images, and language including brief strong language)
Released: September 23, 2016
Runtime: 107 minutes
Director: Peter Berg
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Kate Hudson, Gina Rodriguez, John Malkovich

(To read my conversation with stars Kurt Russell and Kate Hudson, click here.)

The ecological toll was historic. The human toll was horrifying.

Deepwater Horizon – a nerve-racking dramatization of the untold heroism at the heart of one of the worst geological catastrophes ever seen – is a disaster movie where the thrills are anything but cheap.

On April 20, 2010, the oceanic oil rig Deepwater Horizon suffered a cataclysmic breakdown in the Gulf of Mexico. Forty miles off the Louisiana coast, it led to the biggest oil spill in U.S. history when this floating structure – manned by a 126 member crew – began to explode and implode. For nearly three months after the collapse, an open underwater oil spout would spew 210 gallons of crude into the ocean, resulting in extensive damage to marine and wildlife habitats.

The environmental fallout dominated the news cycle, particularly as BP Global’s business practices were rightly scrutinized. Ignored in the media narrative, however, was the fact that hardworking men and women fought to save their lives and each other’s as their world literally burned down around them.

And some didn’t make it.

The film Deepwater Horizon tells their story, of the struggle and heroism of everyday workers whose safety was tragically compromised by company executives. As a genre piece, yes, this is a disaster movie, but it’s one that uses Hollywood pyrotechnics not to sensationalize but rather authenticate, and then magnify, in the most realistic terms.

It’s the second collaboration between actor Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg, with distinct corollaries to their first, Lone Survivor (about a real-life battle in Afghanistan). Both essentially share the same narrative structure: the grunts on the “front line” suffer tragedy at the hands of incompetent superiors, and then rise heroically in the face of life-and-death circumstances. Artistically, the same approach is applied too. Deepwater Horizon is a disaster movie but with the grit of a war movie.

In a purely aesthetic respect, this also evokes an End Times onslaught in microcosm (sans Rapture). The systematic destruction of the oil rig plays out like Armageddon, with literal fire and brimstone raining down. But this never plays to our base popcorn sensibilities. Berg’s severe, exhausting depiction – which is necessarily gruesome, at times with bone-protruding brutality – is as wince-inducing as it is heartbreaking.

Yet for as powerfully rendered as the central disturbing spectacle is, Berg’s career-best directorial effort is perhaps most distinguished in the build-up. The actual event doesn’t begin until about the film’s halfway point; Berg doesn’t even “tease” with a prologue glimpse of what’s to come (as many directors might, in a desperate attempt to satiate the lowest common denominator). Rather, the story unfolds in a straightforward, steady crescendo toward the inevitable, but Berg (almost miraculously) never allows the movie to drag. If anything, he frays our nerves (along with our fears) the longer he keeps fate at bay.

Beyond a strong command of cinematic techniques in general (and his signature hand-held naturalism specifically), Berg maximizes this plot patience in three distinct ways:

  • One, we’re given a clear understanding of the decisions that were made, how things went wrong, why, and who was to blame (character-actor legends Kurt Russell and John Malkovich lock horns, respectively, with conviction and arrogance). Due to demands from visiting BP execs, the rig is pushed beyond its limits.
  • Two, through fleshing out the home life of Mike Williams (Wahlberg, as unassumingly stalwart as ever) and his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson, brandishing strong dramatic chops), Berg establishes the emotional family component beyond the perfunctory (something the recent Sully didn’t do as well), and even utilizes it to provide a simple diagram to help us understand how ocean rigs work (and how they could fail).
  • And three, Berg essentially portrays the pressure-building drill mechanism as an underwater leviathan laying in wait to strike and destroy. That example may sound hokey (which would be my lack of a better metaphor), but Berg makes it entirely legitimate as he cranks our anxiety.

For all that we know of this event going into the movie, the actual level of destruction (which, by all accounts of those who survived it, is accurate) nothing can prepare you for the scale. This is not your typical Hollywood hyperbole. More to the point: nothing could prepare those oil rig roughnecks either.

Unlike similar movies in which the heroes are soldiers or first responders, these workers weren’t trained to save lives. It’s not what they signed up for. That context provides its own unique inspiration, and makes Deepwater Horizon’s raison d’être – which is to focus on the people, not the political – all the more substantial, and necessary.

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