'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

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.

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