Film Review – Deepwater Horizon
Director Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon (2016) tells the true story of the offshore oil rig (of the same name) which exploded in April 2010, causing the worst oil spill in American history. This tragic event ended with the loss of life and immeasurable damage to the surrounding environment – which makes me all the more conflicted about Berg’s film. Here’s a story where everything went wrong, filtered and packaged as big budget entertainment. There’s something very wrong about that.
It’s the same issue I had with Berg’s previous big screen production, Lone Survivor (2013). In both, he takes these terrible tragedies and tries to insert a level of hope that feels underdeveloped and even borderline inappropriate. There’s something almost exploitative in how he takes these real characters and places them into scenarios that are neither inspirational nor thought provoking. In Deepwater Horizon, we see a number of oil rig workers die…for what purpose? I’m sure Berg (along with screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand) meant this as a tribute to those who went through the actual experience, but the style calls to mind blockbuster disaster pictures. Are we supposed to be entertained by what we see? When Berg plasters an American flag in front of a gigantic fireball of burning oil, how are we supposed to react? I walked away with a strange sense of depression.
This isn’t like the Titanic where the passage of time lifted an event into folklore legend. Nor is it like Paul Greengrass’ United 93 (2006) which had no recognizable stars playing real people that fought against evil in the face of inevitable death. This should have been a cautionary tale of hubris, but Berg can’t seem to help himself. He yearns for the big, splashy moments where characters defy the odds even when they’re uncalled for. We have big screen stars (Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell) dodging debris and flames and collapsing steel, risking their lives to get others to safety. Berg makes sure to include shots of rescue teams being alerted and immediately jumping into action. This is all fine and dandy, but it’s hard to feel anything but sadness knowing all of this could have been avoided. The biggest misstep was trying to shoehorn an uplifting tone in a story where safety precautions went largely ignored. I thought more of the mistakes than the acts of heroism.
Berg spends so much time building up to the explosion and the immediate evacuation scenes that we don’t get much character work. Most of them are defined simply as types. Mark Wahlberg plays the lead role as Mike Williams. Mike is depicted as an everyday family man, with a wife and child at home. Kurt Russell plays Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell, the rig master whose main concern is the safety of his crew. That’s really the most we learn of both Wahlberg and Russell’s characters, the rest of their time is spent trying to save as many lives as they can after the initial explosion. We also have Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), a fellow coworker whose main trait is her broken down car. And to an even lesser degree is Kate Hudson, who plays Mike’s wife, Felicia. Felicia spends her limited screen time as the worried spouse, stuck at home trying to get answers.
All of the problems of the narrative can be encompassed in the character of Donald Vidrine, played by John Malkovich. Vidrine was one of the rig supervisors who urged a pressure test without taking the necessary precautions, leading directly to the disaster. As much as I enjoy Malkovich as an actor, he is miscast in this role. His unconventional style and vocal inflection gives him an exaggerated, caricature persona. This is a problem because his mannerisms and funny accent can induce laughter in the early scenes. But things go from comedic to deadly serious when his actions lead to very bad results. He has conflicting qualities representative for the film as a whole: are supposed to laugh at him, hate him, or both?
The more I think about Deepwater Horizon, the more I start to appreciate what Berg did with Battleship (2012). Don’t get me wrong, that was a stupid film that was devoid of common sense, but at least it knew what it was. Berg doesn’t quite have the deft of hand to tackle these hard-hitting, true-life stories. There’s a sensitivity that comes with showing people that have gone through extreme trauma (many of whom are still alive) in a movie marketed for a box office draw. Berg was not able to pull himself out of the macho, “men doing hero things” approach. It’s shot like a typical action film. The cinematography (Enrique Chediak) shakes the frame to the point of incomprehension, and the sound design rumbles the eardrums with every crack, crash, and boom.
Berg ends with a montage of photographs and video footage showing the real life people involved with the disaster. As I watched, I thought to myself: it would’ve been nice to get to know these people during the actual movie itself.