'Deepwater Horizon' Will Entertain You Even If It Fails to Enrage You

by J.R. Kinnard

30 September 2016

Peter Berg’s gripping disaster thriller is a cautionary tale about greed, hubris, and ginormous explosions.
Mark Wahlberg in Deepwater Horizon (2016)  
cover art

Deepwater Horizon

Director: Peter Berg
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Kate Hudson

(Summit Entertainment / Participant Media)
wide: 30 Sep 2016
UK theatrical: 29 Sep 2016
2016

Deepwater Horizon is the closest most of us (hopefully) will ever come to experiencing Hell on Earth. Peter Berg’s new disaster thriller employs an impressive array of thunderous pyrotechnics and seamless CGI to re-create the doomed oil rig responsible for the largest spill in United States history. Though noticeably devoid of political or ideological messages, Deepwater Horizon functions splendidly as a cautionary tale about the dangers of greed and hubris. Berg doesn’t exactly re-define the disaster genre, but he still supplies plenty of blockbuster spectacle for adrenaline junkies.

When Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) and his 125 crewmates aboard the semi-submersible drilling rig, the Deepwater Horizon, awoke on the morning of 20 April 2010, they couldn’t possibly imagine the horror awaiting them. Mike, the ship’s Chief Electronics Technician, is constantly complaining about technical difficulties; alarms that don’t sound, systems that don’t work, and a boss who employs, “hope as a tactic”, when it comes to making managerial decisions. The only sympathetic ears belong to his wife back home (Kate Hudson) and the ship’s Installation Manager, Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), who preaches safety like a Southern Baptist minister.

Safety is the last thing on the minds of BP executives and rig managers like Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich). The installation at Deepwater Horizon is 43 days behind schedule and Vidrine has little patience for Harrell’s repeated pleas to test the newly poured cement seals on the ocean floor. Compromised seals increase the risk for a “blowout”, in which highly-pressurized oil and gas pockets erupt violently to the surface. But that couldn’t possibly happen on a state-of-the-art drilling vessel in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, right?

Of course, a blowout does occur, leaving the Gulf coast soaked in crude oil and 11 crewmen aboard the Horizon dead. Clearly, Berg (Battleship, Lone Survivor) and his screenwriters, Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, couldn’t care less about the environmental calamity that followed the Horizon’s eventual sinking. Their myopic version of this man-made disaster is the film’s greatest strength and its most glaring weakness.

Dispensing with the environmental and economic implications of the Horizon spill allows Berg to dig deeply into the mechanics of the disaster. We learn a great deal about not only the operation of the rig, but the managerial hierarchy that exists only to further productivity. Profit abhors caution, and Berg captures this wanton greed with refreshing clarity because he refuses to take a moral or ethical stand on Big Oil.

Mostly, he just lets Malkovich run wild as the heartless executive with crude oil in his veins. Malkovich’s outrageous Southern accent sounds like the unholy union between a tobacco-spitting sheriff and a tea-sipping Dixiecrat. He knows how to be slimy like a fish knows how to be wet. It’s impossible not to chuckle when Malkovich’s taskmaster quips, “No mud, no flow, we gots to go!” It took guts to cast the iconic actor in this unusual role, and Malkovich more than vindicates Berg’s choice with a hypnotic performance.

Berg’s laser focus also sidesteps many of the usual pitfalls in disaster movies. We aren’t subjected to lengthy scenes with concerned wives or tortured telephone calls (see Sully). The few scenes between Williams and his wife are well written and informative, mostly because Wahlberg and Hudson share a comfortable chemistry. We even get a cutesy explanation for blowouts, courtesy of Williams’s young daughter and an erupting can of Coca-Cola (at least they tried to make the product placement interesting).

Once Williams boards the Deepwater Horizon, however, Berg never allows us to relax. The production design re-creates the rig with startling authenticity. You can practically hear the fatigue in every overtaxed pipeline seal. When the inevitable chaos finally erupts, it doesn’t disappoint. Fiery shrapnel and burning oil destroy everything in sight, with the suddenly insignificant humans clambering for their lives. Practical and special effects blur together in an unrelenting gasoline fireball. If you like watching stuff blow up real good, you’ll get your fix with Deepwater Horizon.

Berg understands that this isn’t a story about ingenuity and problem solving. After all, when you’re sitting on a pile of dynamite, there are only two choices: jump off the pile or find a place where you won’t get your butt blown off. This is a story about survival, plain and simple.

Unfortunately, survival yarns are fairly passive from a cinematic standpoint. We watch as people helplessly scramble, climb, and scream their way into oblivion (or into lifeboats). Luck plays an integral part in survival, which diminishes the capabilities of the characters, regardless of their obvious expertise. Harrell, for instance, is blind and disoriented throughout the entire ordeal, effectively neutralizing his contribution. We admire these characters for surviving, but it’s not exactly the celebration of heroism and self-sacrifice that the filmmakers likely intended.

The lack of big-picture perspective also makes Deepwater Horizon a tragically small story. Berg’s hesitation to comment about dangerous platform drilling (the Horizon was drilling the deepest oil well in history, at a depth of over 35,000 feet) makes this explosion feel like an isolated incident rather than the result of systemic corporate greed and corner-cutting. Berg creates a fitting document of the hubris that victimized the Horizon and its crew, but it’s unlikely to raise any questions or concerns regarding future disasters.

Ultimately, Deepwater Horizon is a rousing action-adventure story about men who pushed nature a bit too far. There are big booms, daring rescues, and even bigger booms. Tragedies like this demand a closer examination of our technological processes and economic priorities. This examination is likely beyond Berg’s modus operandi, but it deserved a bit more contemplation than being reduced to blockbuster fodder. Still, Berg knows the film he wants to make and he makes the hell out of it. Deepwater Horizon will entertain you, even if it fails to enrage you.

Deepwater Horizon

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