PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Reviews

'Deepwater Horizon' Is at Best Incomplete, at Worst Dishonest

Mark Wahlberg in Deepwater Horizon (2016)

Peter Berg’s disaster movie is so entranced by individual bravery it mostly forgets about corporate villainy.


Deepwater Horizon

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O’Brien, Kate Hudson
Rated: R
Studio: Lionsgate
Year: 2016
Trailer

Movies about titanic events have a built-in problem. They have to pluck out the individual stories while still keeping a deep focus on the larger issue. That’s true whether you’re talking about a squad of GIs amidst the carnage of the Second World War or The Rock trying to save his family while CGI earthquakes shred the California scenery. Somehow, this basic premise was forgotten in the making of Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon.

As Berg’s current male muse, Mark Wahlberg again straps on his just-a-regular-guy look as he adopts a slight hint of a Southern accent and steps into the role of Mike Williams. A technician working for Transocean, Williams was part of the crew onboard the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon on 20 April 2010. That was the day when the stresses of ultra-deep water drilling, corporate cost-cutting, profit demands, and those pesky laws of nature came together and erupted in the biggest oil spill in American history.

The screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand takes its time leading to the explosion. Unfortunately, this extended build-up involves a fair amount of by-the-numbers scenes with Williams’ daughter Sydney (Stella Allen) and wife Kate (Kate Hudson), as though the audience wouldn’t be able to care about Williams if it didn’t sit through formulaic scenes that show him being the perfect dad and husband.

When the film gets to the rig, Berg seems more in his element. The Deepwater Horizon itself is almost adoringly detailed. An astonishing pile of equipment whose size belies the extreme delicacy of its operation, the rig balances its hulking weight on four pillars whose feet are motors that keep it constantly shifting to stay on top of the three-and-a-half-mile-deep well, which is the rig's only reason for floating there in the Gulf of Mexico.

On this structure, the film develops an easy, quasi-military camaraderie between Williams and his crew, a mix of clipboard engineers and oil-covered roughnecks. The Transocean team is portrayed as uniformly diligent and cautious, ever aware of the massively unpredictable forces they face. (To hammer home their awareness, the movie features some unfortunate dialogue early on, when Sydney refers to her dad’s job involving “wrestling the dinosaurs”, suggesting first that nature is somehow the enemy, and second, that dangerous oil extraction is nothing more than another challenge for the tough guys at the center of Berg’s films.)

In contrast, the British Petroleum suits on the rig don't fit in with the blue-collar crew. They're presented as dangerously profit-obsessed and caring only that the Deepwater Horizon is 43 days behind schedule. Lamenting the sad state of the rig’s equipment, from glitchy computers to inoperative phones, the rig’s manager Jimmy Harrell (a magnificently authoritative Kurt Russell) slaps at executives like the conscientious boss every worker wishes they had between them and the corporate suite: “You’re a $180 billion company, and you’re cheap.”

Confronting the master sergeant-like Harrell, whose crew uniformly calls him “Mr. Jimmy”, is Donald Vidrine, played by John Malkovich with a deliciously villainous predatory slither; his affect is so watchful and hungry that he almost appears to be sizing up the crew for his next meal. When he derides the crew for being “nervous as cats” before cranking up the drilling operation that will ultimately doom the rig and much of the surrounding ecosystem, Vidrine’s blithe corporate arrogance and ignorance feels positively Rumsfeldian.

Once things go to hell, however, the film tosses that story overboard and concentrates solely on how the well malfunctions, blasting the rig into fiery shards and forcing the crew to scramble for their lives. Berg is proficient at capturing the terror of the disaster itself, from the ominous fateful notes threaded through the film’s first half to the hellish chaos of the second.

But this laser-focused disaster movie is so eager to find the heroism that it almost completely ignores the villains. That’s all well and good for those who only want to hear half the story, but it still leaves a yawning gap here. Berg has managed such complex stories differently, for instance in his far superior Lone Survivor, where he includes scenes showing the Taliban plotting and reacting. One only has to watch an infuriating and more comprehensive account of the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, like Margaret Brown’s The Great Invisible, or remember the interminable weeks after the explosion as millions of gallons of oil poured into the Gulf of Mexico, to understand that what happened on the rig was only part of the greater disaster.

Except for the insultingly perfunctory note at its end, this movie offers no hint of the calamitous devastation that followed the explosion. It’s as though the ecosystem-annihilating and coastal business-devastating spill was only a footnote to the action on screen.

The bravery of the real-life Williams and many of his crewmates is unquestioned, as is the tragedy of the lives that were lost on the rig. But by ignoring the rest of the tragedy that followed and continues today (those 210 million gallons of oil didn’t just disappear), Deepwater Horizon is at best incomplete and at worst dishonest.

3

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.