Peter Berg has built his directorial career as a more socially aware version of Michael Bay. Immersed in his brash style, he likes to blow stuff up real good…but at least he’s conscious of the resulting fallout. Deepwater Horizon is basically the ideal Berg-ian project: a broad true-life story of earnest heroes, embroiled in a conflict with clear strands of social responsibility, indicting abuses of power via faultless do-gooders. It’s bleeding-heart liberalism viewed through a conservative patriotic filter. And within that very specific, very identifiable framework, the film works about as well as it possibly can.
Make no mistake – it’s not seamless. But then again, Berg doesn’t want to be seamless. He makes big movies that express loud emotions in impassioned strokes. That’s Deepwater Horizon in a nutshell, and it’s pretty damn gripping, seams and all. In fact, so successful is this film’s version of swelling, grandiose, casually unrealistic portrayals of real-life events that it’s almost disappointing whenever it reins its energy in. This is a movie for which too much is just right, and anything less is a mild let-down.
As if I could ever forget why I long ago swore off filling my car up at a BP station, along comes this movie to provide an IMAX-sized reminder. On April 20, 2010, a semi-submersible drilling rig off the coast of New Orleans experienced a massive blowout as a result of internal pressure failure, killing 11 people, destroying the rig, and creating the largest oil spill in U.S. history. It was, and is, an outrage on multiple levels – a financial, humanitarian, and environmental catastrophe all resulting from BP’s refusal to adhere to basic safety protocols in the name of cutting costs and maximizing profits. Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mathew Salt’s screenplay illustrates that outrage in the clearest manner possible. One could say the rendering is “on-the-nose,” but that would make it sound so much less satisfying. The corporate hounds of BP are portrayed as willfully ignorant, casually negligent, strikingly inept, and greedily corrupt…can’t really say they’re one-dimensional when they embody all of the above at once. It’s less caricature than blunt-force catharsis, with actors like John Malkovich sinking their teeth into roles that come right to the brink of scenery chewing without actually taking a bite. These corporate villains represent the immovable object to our heroes’ irresistible force.
What a force of unending virtue they are, these workhorses whose expertise is disguised by their grunt work, heroic in their daily pursuit regardless of the tragedy they eventually must surmount. Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), the rig’s electrician, is our entryway into the crew, which consists of a slew of whip-smart nice guys who are loyal to their no-nonsense boss, Mr. Jimmy (a suitably mustachioed Kurt Russell). He’s the first to call out the dangers of BP’s corner-cutting measures, only to see his fears realized mere hours later.
There is a wonky version of this film, one that traces the source of these disastrous decisions through closed boardrooms and hushed phone calls, and follows the tragedy through to its prolonged environmental fallout. Deepwater Horizon is a different version, one more focused on spectacle than society, with an emphasis on people instead of policy. This is a classic disaster movie, replete with bombastic thrills, riveting action, and noble heroes striving against the work of deceitful villains. It’s carried off with taut efficiency; Berg and cinematographer Enrique Chediak capture moment-to-moment terror, and editors Gabriel Fleming and Colby Parker Jr. maintain peak intensity over what amounts to a movie-long set piece. So ably does Deepwater Horizon master the classical disaster epic framework, wearing its guts and heart on its sleeve, elevating individual heroism, and celebrating sacrifice, that it’s almost disappointing when it veers away from its grander notions in favor of sobering factuality. Toss in a few low-angle heroic close-ups and a series of music-swelling, slow motion reconciliation shots, and you’d have yourself an old school classic.