Six years after the Deepwater Horizon calamity, there remain reserves of oil buried under the sands of the Gulf Coast, viscous treasure troves lying in wait for rough weather to stir them from their hidey-holes. Ruin tends to follow in their wake when they’re churned up: They knock off mangrove islands, they smear the shoreline with coats of tar, they leave oil-poisoned dolphin corpses afloat on Barataria Bay, and they wash all manner of unwanted detritus ashore, like the new Peter Berg film, a slick, Hollywoodized take on the events that led to the explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and caused the worst natural disaster in the recent history of the United States.
Because creativity is a luxury for biopics like this, Berg elected to go with the simple, to-the-point title of Deepwater Horizon. It’s the ultimate case of “what you see is what you get”: Berg is interested solely in the happenings on the Horizon, with only the scarcest amount of running time devoted to getting the necessary characters in place before combustible mayhem ensues. And that’s okay! In point of fact, “stuff go boom” is the mode in which Deepwater Horizon is at its most functional and least laughable: The film almost literally possesses a child’s understanding of how roughnecks summon black gold from beneath the Earth’s crust. It isn’t the kind of movie where the price of admission buys you an education. (For that, just watch Margaret Brown’s 2014 documentary, The Great Invisible.)
Instead, it’s the kind of movie where a ticket stub means granting Berg sway over your attention span for about an hour of your life. That leaves 40 minutes of Deepwater Horizon’s duration unaccounted for, though you’ll most likely spend them letting your mind wander. Berg probably would rather you didn’t: Deepwater Horizon is experiential cinema, a film that works as long as you’re in the theater and ceases to linger in your brain space once you’ve made your way back to the parking lot. Deepwater Horizon doesn’t want to be any better of a movie. It wants to keep us hooked for as long as it takes Berg to run out of things to blow up.
He’s good at doing that, more so here than in his two last studio efforts, Lone Survivor and Battleship, the former of which is based on a real-life incident, the latter, a real-life board game. Deepwater Horizon feels like kin to Lone Survivor, and not just because they both star Mark Wahlberg: Both films make a lot of hay out of actual horrible things that have happened to actual humans, though Berg learned his lesson after Lone Survivor and manages to humanize the men and women of Deepwater Horizon without exploiting them. For a moment, the film is a day-in-the-life yarn about Mike Williams (Wahlberg), the Chief Electronics Technician aboard the Horizon, and his fellow crew members, including Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), Caleb Holloway (Dylan O’Brien), and their manager, Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell).
But humanity only takes Deepwater Horizon so far. There’s a certain pleasure to seeing these actors pantomime as rig operators, particularly Russell, who brings so much charm to his every scene that he leaves charisma residue on the frame whenever Berg puts his focus elsewhere. It’s enough to help carry Wahlberg, our audience anchor, who isn’t particularly good at mimicry and who is hampered by the film’s dialogue. (Apparently all Southern colloquies either begin or end with someone saying “shit.”) He’s game for trying on a twang until Berg sets the picture aflame, at which point he abandons pretense and goes full Dorchester. This, in the end, is fine, because Deepwater Horizon doesn’t care about accurate recreation of time and place. Instead, it cares about efficacy of suspense.
Berg is old hat at staging action, and here he keeps us so enmeshed in the sheer terror of the scenario that we feel as though we’re stuck on the Horizon ourselves. The film’s technique isn’t, or shouldn’t be, at issue. It’s the substance surrounding the tension that lessens Deepwater Horizon’s impact as a narrative. There are genuine villains at the center of the tragedy, a la Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) and Robert Kaluza (Brad Leland), two British Petroleum rig bosses charged with manslaughter for their blatant negligence in interpreting a pair of bad pressure tests on the Horizon. The film plays this up as a conflict between company men and blue collar workers, the people down in the trenches. There’s an authenticity to that dichotomy, except that Malkovich plays Vidrine like Snidely Whiplash while Berg forgets to acquaint us with the Horizon’s eventual casualties.
It’s like watching the ordeal through tunnel vision: Wahlberg, Rodriguez, O’Brien and Russell are all heroes, but they’re also the ones who made it. We should care about the living, but what about the dead? Are the 11 lives lost in the fiasco not representative enough of its human cost? In one big moment, a man shimmies up a ladder to keep a runaway crane from toppling the derrick. He succeeds, but pays with his life. We’re meant to take something away from his sacrifice, but we don’t even know his name. Mike’s wife, Felicia (Kate Hudson), is afforded more development, and a percentage of that development is apportioned to her butt. (Hey, speaking of exploitation….)
Deepwater Horizon is a prime example of what’s bad about movies of its kind: Even with a smaller scope, they naturally end up favoring the few instead of the many, and in doing so they fail to fully articulate the consequences of their depicted destructions. Is this the best way to honor the Horizon’s fallen? Not quite. It isn’t even the best way to honor Williams or Harrell or Fleytas or Holloway, face characters intended to reassure us that most of the souls stationed on the Horizon got off the rig. For Berg, they’re just around to serve a function, giving us something to hold onto in the midst of chaos.
Director: Peter Berg
Writers: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Matthew Sand
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez, John Malkovich, Dylan O’Brien, Ethan Suplee, Brad Leland, Kate Hudson
Release Date: Sept. 30, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.