Deepwater Horizon (2016)
Friday, September 30, 2016 at 09:51PM
Ian Simmons in Deepwater Horizon [2016]

Drilling Down

The ghost of Kurt Russell looms large over Deepwater Horizon. Don’t worry, he’s not dead. But his character bit the bullet in Poseidon ten years ago, and I spent more than a little time thinking about his final scene while watching Peter Berg’s new film. In both movies, Russell plays a paternal figure who presides over a large vessel that encounters big trouble in the ocean. Lucky us, Berg and writers Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand (working from the New York Times article, “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours”, by David Barstow, David Rohde and Stephanie Saul) largely avoid the disaster movie tropes and traps that sunk Poseidon, and instead deliver a nerve-wracking yet non-exploitive action experience that left me cinematically shell-shocked at the end.

I understand if you’ve forgotten the real-life events that inspired Deepwater Horizon. Even six years ago, many of the headlines coming out of the nearly three-month Louisiana oil spill centered on the gallons of crude pumping into the Gulf and the nearby communities struggling with natural and financial catastrophes (not to mention battling insurance companies). Over time, the almost daily footage of still-busted underwater pipes stopped being a call to action against corporate malfeasance and became just another meme—a drop of black in endless blue noise. Also lost in the coverage was the Deepwater Horizon itself, the massive exploratory rig contracted by BP that erupted in flames on the night of April 20.

The movie is, to use a tired but accurate phrase, pulse-pounding entertainment, but there are no vicarious thrills here. When the mud and oil start to flow, and eventually catch on fire, Berg and company do a tremendous service to the victims’ families and survivors by not relying on overblown action-movie heroics. When characters get thrown across a room by geysers of thick, brown sludge, some of them don’t get up. There are no slow-motion leaps through fireballs, or protracted speeches by the evil company men whose arrogance unleashed the horrors.

Unfortunately, the path to the good stuff winds through Michael Bay country. In the requisite Establish all the Players sequence, we Mike (Mark Wahlberg), the incongruously chiseled everyman; Andrea (Gina Rodriguez), the gear head who’s also (gasp!) a girl; and Mr. Jimmy (Russell), the Deepwater Horizon’s grizzled operations manager. Between the overflowing-Coke-can metaphor you’ve seen in the trailer and the prehistoric gender clichés,* there’s real cause for concern in the first fifteen minutes.

Most of these issues evaporate once the crew hops aboard the helicopter that takes them to the rig.** Here, the film briefly becomes a corporate-politics powder keg; Mr. Jimmy questions why the cement inspectors have been sent home before they complete their test of the Deepwater’s foundation. He’s told by the visiting panel of cartoonishly overweight/underweight and vacant-looking BP suits (led by a gumbo-gobbed John Malkovich) that the company can’t afford any more distractions if it is to make up for the vessel’s 43-day lag.

Spoiler Alert: Things go horribly wrong, and columns of bullet-fast oil/mud mix tear through the hull. The progressively worsening blasts knock the crew about, causing bolts to pop and bodies to fly. That’s nothing compared what happens when much of the atmosphere (which has been flooded with gas) ignites. Berg sets us right in the middle of situations that prove, in fact, impossible for some people to survive. The destruction is unforgiving, and comes without warning.

How could this be? More than the performances, the spectacle, and the sheer fascination with true-life events, Deepwater Horizon succeeds because of geography and scale. At the same time Berg uses close-ups to lock us into the flooding and fiery traps that comprise the rig, he cues us in on how massive Deepwater Horizon is—so big, in fact, that damaged PA and warning-lights systems can keep half the vessel from realizing that the other half is disintegrating. When word finally gets out, and the Coast Guard scrambles help, a rescue chopper shrinks into the distance, fading into a black horizon that shows no sign of the massive fire burning up the ocean. Like the establishing shots in Alien, Deepwater Horizon sells the utter terror of isolation in a few well-conceived shots.

The performances are solid, if mostly unremarkable. I don’t know if the real Mike at all resembles the Wahlberg Movie Persona, but there’s very little about the character as written or acted that transcends what you’d expect from a Reluctant Working-Class Action Hero. Same goes for Rodriguez. Russell fares slightly better, only because he carries a lot of goodwill into the picture (I don’t know if another actor yelling, “Son of a BITCH!” would’ve elicited the same approving laughter as I experienced—and enhanced—in the screening I attended). Oddly enough, each actor shines when they aren’t speaking, particularly in the subtle, trembling ways they convey shock.

Of course, because Deepwater Horizon is “Based on a True Story”, it ends with white titles on black and a loving photo tribute to the actual people who lost their lives. It’s a cheesy trope that absolutely works here. Because Berg and his team took the time to place us right alongside these put-upon, courageous men—to make us understand the terror of their final moments and the callous, bottom-line-driven arrogance that killed them—these images offer a chilling punctuation to the director’s savage (if imperfect) indictment. This is Berg’s boldest and most satisfying work yet.

*Are there any husbands in America who don’t suffer from premature ejaculation? Does every wife wake up looking as glamorous as Kate Hudson does in this movie, randy and ready to shake the walls in skimpy lingerie?

**But not before a really cheap jump-scare involving a bird.

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