Four stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang
Actor-turned-filmmaker Peter Berg has run hot and cold during his directing career, from well-received inspirational drama (2004’s Friday Night Lights) to laughable popcorn dreck (2012’s Battleship).
He also has a fondness for wartime drama, although his gung-ho, America-first sensibilities sometimes slide into uncomfortable xenophobia, as with 2007’s deplorable The Kingdom.
But Berg’s skill as an old-school action director cannot be denied; even when the story leaves something to be desired, he exhibits a muscular filmmaking style that evokes the likes of John Sturges, Robert Aldrich and even John Ford. Berg simply needs to choose his projects more carefully, and resist the temptation to shove his politics down our throats.
Under optimal circumstances, the results can be both exciting and deeply moving, and that’s definitely the case with Deepwater Horizon: without question, Berg’s best film since Friday Night Lights.
This calamitous real-world event remains recent enough to resonate uncomfortably with viewers, who may recoil from being reminded that just shy of a dozen men died on April 20, 2010, under circumstances that absolutely were preventable. And, yes, at times Berg’s persuasive reconstruction of these events is grimly realistic and very, very hard to watch.
But the tone is never exploitative; indeed, scripters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand — drawing their material from a New York Times article by David Barstow, David Rohde and Stephanie Saul — take an honorable and even heroic approach. Berg’s film celebrates bravery and courage, and serves as a deeply moving memorial to the 11 men who lost their lives, each of whom is cited by name and photo, just prior to the end credits.
Try not to choke up during that montage.
On top of which, as a meticulous account of recent history — allowing for some climactic exaggeration, for dramatic impact — this film stands quite nobly as a lingering indictment of the corporate bastards at British Petroleum (BP), who placed penny-pinching shortcuts ahead of human lives. In that respect, Berg has done us an incalculable public service.
It’s an old and sadly familiar story, brought to the big screen in numerous variations: mine workers exploited by callous supervisors; shop workers harassed by cruel owners; field laborers all but imprisoned on company farms. Hard-working “little people” at the mercy of smiling, condescending, immaculately dressed — and often indifferently ignorant — administrators.
Carnahan and Sand set up that dynamic from the start, allowing us to spend time with several key individuals among the 126 crew members working this ultra deep-water drilling rig off the Louisiana coast.
Mark Wahlberg is well cast as Mike Williams, the savvy chief electronics technician for Transocean, the Swiss company that owns Deepwater Horizon, which in turn is leased by BP. We meet him just prior to his next 21-day shift, as he reluctantly leaves wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and their precocious young daughter, Sydney (Stella Allen). It’s a sweet family tableau, well sketched by all three actors.
Their breakfast scene also allows for a clever primer on how Deepwater Horizon operates, in the form of Sydney’s school science project: an ingenious little model involving a shaken can of soda, a metal tube and a dollop of honey. It’s a classic case of bringing us viewers up to speed, and I’ve rarely seen it done so ingeniously (and painlessly).
Once en route to the enormous floating drilling rig, Mike shares his helicopter “taxi” with Deepwater Horizon’s offshore installation manager, “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell (Kurt Russell), and Deputy Dynamic Positioning Officer Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez). Mr. Jimmy is charged with both the rig’s integrity and the entire crew’s safety; Andrea is responsible for maintaining the floating rig’s position directly over the well, by carefully controlling propellers and thrusters.
Like Wahlberg, Russell has an inherent regular-guy vibe that makes Mr. Jimmy one with his crewmates; they like and respect him. Russell also breezily displays the raised-eyebrow, don’t-mess-with-me authority that frequently finds him butting heads with impatient BP reps.
Rodriguez, in turn, makes Andrea capable, intelligent and equally personable: comfortably secure as “one of the boys” in a primarily male and testosterone-fueled environment, and well able to hold her own. Andrea and Mike have a droll running dialog regarding the likely problems with her classic car, which refuses to run properly.
Ethan Suplee earns our respect as Jason Anderson, the cautious senior toolpusher in charge of the drilling floor crew. Dylan O’Brien is appropriately down and dirty as drilling crew floorhand Caleb Holloway, who — despite his youth — already has spent three years on Deepwater Horizon.
As luck (or scripting convenience) would have it, on this particularly day Deepwater Horizon is graced with the presence of BP execs O’Bryan and Sims, both played with perfectly calibrated fatuous arrogance by, respectively, James DuMont and Joe Chrest. Although irritating, they’re a harmless and easily ignored distraction, as far as Mr. Jimmy, Mike and the others are concerned.
The actual villain of the piece is BP’s on-site “company man,” Donald Vidrine, played to overstated excess by John Malkovich. This character — an actual real-world BP supervisor — is the film’s sole misstep. Between Vidrine’s blatantly dismissive arrogance and Malkovich’s affected Cajun patois, he’s only a Snidely Whiplash mustache shy of being a farcical bad guy right out of a stage “mellerdrama.”
Which is to say, Vidrine is badly overplayed; Malkovich’s excess stands out like a sore thumb, amid all the other naturalistic performances. Berg’s film didn’t need this sort of cartoon scoundrel.
Given the technical details involved, Carnahan and Sand do an impressive job of bringing us up to speed about the massive rig, the pipeline extending to the ocean floor, the physics and hydraulics involved, and the constant danger to those who work in close proximity to a mechanism operating under such extreme pressure. Berg takes his time, keeping us engaged with the various character dynamics, until — when things start to go wrong — we’re able to understand precisely why.
We already have a pretty good idea of what’s coming, of course; the sickening post-mortem occupied newscasts and front page headlines for months. It all came down to corners cut, over issues argued here between Mr. Jimmy and Vidrine. We wince, irrationally hoping that this might be some parallel universe version of events, with a different outcome. But no.
When everything goes to hell — literally — the re-created blowout is a masterpiece of choreographed mayhem by special effects supervisor Burt Dalton. The carnage is horrific and persuasive, with men flung like rag dolls amid seawater, driller’s mud, fire and the despondent roar of Deepwater Horizon itself, as the giant rig’s skeletal structure collapses and implodes in large and small chunks of destructive debris.
And this is (merely) the third-act climax. Equally impressive is the “quieter” time we’ve already spent on this massive beast: a jaw-dropping display of filmmaking magic by production designer Chris Seagers, who with a massive crew — including 85 welders — spent eight months building separate elements of an 85-percent scale model of the actual rig. The degree to which physical reality then merges with moviemaking artifice — with an equally impressive assist from cinematographer Enrique Chediak — is astonishing.
Once into the hell-for-leather conclusion, Berg and editors Gabriel Fleming and Colby Parker Jr. choreograph the action with ferocity, cutting back and forth between half a dozen sets of characters and crises. The result is exciting, suspenseful and heart-stopping, for the obvious reason: Even viewers who know that 11 men died, likely don’t know which 11 men.
On a minor note, Berg doesn’t do himself any favors, by opening with brief, off-camera snatches of testimony during the subsequent Deepwater Horizon Incident Joint Investigation; it’s a clumsy entry to this narrative, particularly since we never get closure via ongoing witness statements, after the third act concludes. Instead, text blocks supply just a few details, most notably the fact that federal prosecutors eventually dropped manslaughter charges against BP supervisors Vidrine and Robert Kaluza ... which is as infuriating today, as it was when announced in late 2015.
But that’s small stuff. In sum, Berg’s film is compelling, well constructed and deeply heartbreaking; we also get the vicarious thrill of several Kurt Russell drop-dead stares tossed in Malcovich’s direction, along with a great one-liner that Wahlberg’s Mike delivers to Vidrine, in response to the latter’s wishful thinking, as a justification for absurd fiscal frugality: “Hope is not a tactic.”