With Deepwater Horizon, director Peter Berg returns to another botched, fatal mission featuring Mark Wahlberg. Whereas Lone Survivor (2014) involved the military and bad communication that ended with the loss of life, something more disturbing lies at the heart of his latest film: capitalism above humanity. Based on an in-depth “New York Times” article by David Barstow, David Rohde and Stephanie Saul, screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand capture a series of falling dominoes that ultimately led to the worst oil drilling disaster in U.S. history. It killed 11 men.
Beyond two or three too many symbolic bad omens thrown in early in the film to hype the anticipation of the 2010 disaster aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, the script melds the immediate events of the fatal pipeline blowout below the rig to facts uncovered much later in the ensuing investigation. From a crew apathetic to their lot as grunts for a corporation looking to cut corners to save a few dollars, to the company men (John Malkovich and Brad Leland) hoping not to disappoint their superiors, this is a human drama where the enemy is but a faceless specter. Nice human touches include a couple of the rig workers singing “Money, money, money” with goofy irony. Meanwhile, they remain oblivious to a metaphorical monster brewing below the apathy and greed.
Irony is key in Berg’s handling of this disaster. When fireballs become impossible to escape, an action film suddenly takes on a sense of parody expected by film-goers seeking escape. This is not a Michael Bay flick. When the American flags still flutter against fiery destruction, they are small bits of mise-en-scène and don’t stand for resilience as much as a cruel symbol on what this country thrives on, as it chews up souls for the profit of foreign investors (in this case the heads of British Petroleum, aka BP). The film doesn’t take long to get there, and when it does, it lingers to harrowing effect, as humanity scrambles — often battered and close to death — to stay alive. Things don’t just blow up, they torture these souls and take the audience along with it with a dramatic grip that hardly allows the audience to catch its breath.
Early in the film, there are several cross cuts deep below the ocean’s surface where the semi-submersible oil rig floats that reveal the instability of this pipeline. As ominous air bubbles escape from the dark seabed, Mike Williams (Wahlberg) and his crew get ready for their near month-long shift on the rig. When the fireworks begin, about 35 minutes into the movie, the dread has been ratcheted up so high that your stomach will sink when one worker examines some mud on his fingers and the image begins to blur from the vibration of the impending blowout that leads to a chain reaction of explosions lasting for the rest of the movie.
Beyond pyrotechnics, the performances are terrific and sincere. Wahlberg continues to give audiences a humble every man with deep soul. It’s the sort of performance that the gods of awards season probably won’t recognize, especially in the shadow of special effects. Malkovich should also be credited for staying well hidden behind a Southern accent, khakis and a button down shirt. But the entire cast should be credited for walking the modest line, keeping their characters grounded in their humanity. These were real people who suffered grave repercussions from a nefarious system driven by greed, represented by the catastrophe that — at least in this film — drags across about an hour of merciless chaos.
The concern of seeing human tragedy turned into entertainment for the multiplex, feels a bit troubling at times. This has to be handled lightly, and for the most part, Berg delivers. Some overwrought orchestral work by composer Steve Jablonsky and bathetic slow motion survivor misery aside, Deepwater Horizon is a strong movie experience that will leave some conflicted about thrills pregnant with a true story that included the loss of human life. If it can inspire empathy, in this case, however, this is an action movie not only well worth getting behind but also learning from.
Deep Water Horizon runs 97 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens wide everywhere this Friday, Sept. 23, including in IMAX theaters. Check local listings for screenings near you. Summit Entertainment provided all images and invited us to a preview screening or the purpose of this review.