Deepwater Horizon (2016) – Movie Review
Directed by: Peter Berg
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan & Matthew Sand
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O’Brien & Kate Hudson
Music: Steve Jablonsky
Release Date: September 29th 2016
For an entire decade, director Peter Berg essentially came across as a director who created “made-to-order” movies. Films like ‘The Rundown‘, ‘Friday Night Lights‘, ‘The Kingdom‘ and ‘Hancock‘, while very different, didn’t really have a distinct style or feel to them. He was a solid director who made mostly solid movies, but that changed with 2012’s ‘Battleship‘ where he had to direct a Michael Bay-inspired adaptation of the Hasbro boardgame. In exchange for directing ‘Battleship‘, Universal Pictures would let him make a lower-budget passion project with ‘Lone Survivor‘ starring Mark Wahlberg. ‘Battleship‘ ultimately became a box-office flop and ‘Lone Survivor‘ became a huge January success paving the way for huge hits like ‘American Sniper‘ during that time of year.
After setting that precedent, it seems that Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg portraying true acts of heroism on the big-screen has become its own industry with ‘Deepwater Horizon‘ and the upcoming ‘Patriots Day‘ (both sporting nearly identical trailers just to hammer this point home). The former is the movie we’re talking about today which is based on the events that led to the largest oil-spill in American history where in April 2010 an oil rig exploded filling the Gulf of Mexico and resulting in the deaths of 11 people. Millions of people across the world watched the fallout of the explosion across the news, but Berg and co. plan to take audiences into the eye of the storm on the Deepwater Horizon and giving us one of 2016’s most powerful films.
On April 20th 2010 on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Drilling Ship, family-man and crew member Mike Williams (Wahlberg) is working as usual with his superior Jimmy Harrell (Russell) as they drill on the southern coast of Louisiana. The crew are several weeks behind schedule and millions of dollars over-budget which makes BP representative Donald Vidrine (Malkovich) nervous and insisting on cutting a few corners to make up for lost time. But as a result, a blowout in the drilling room causes a chain reaction that quickly sets the entire ship ablaze and sinking. The crew must escape the inferno and survive until the coast guard arrive in order to get back to their families but with burning oil on all sides the odds are stacked against them.
It’s more or less the same type of story that we’ve seen countless times before where innocent people are put into harm’s way due to the hubris of humankind. ‘Titanic‘, ‘The Poseidon Adventure‘ and ‘Towering Inferno‘ are just a handful of films like this, but what ‘Deepwater Horizon‘ has going for it that those films didn’t is a lack of distance. With ‘The Poseidon Adventure‘ and ‘Towering Inferno‘ capturing a fictional race for survival and ‘Titanic‘ depicting a real event from 100 years before it was made (as well as being in the background of a fictional love story, but that’s a discussion for another time), the sinking of the Deepwater Horizon was only 6 years ago and is still something that many viewers will likely have vivid memories of. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can remember seeing the news footage where thick, black smoke was seemingly billowing out of the ocean. So much attention has been put upon the aftermath with the oil spill and the resulting lawsuits that were placed against BP that it feels appropriate to make a movie portraying exactly what happened to cause it as well as depict the ordinary men and women who were in the epicentre of the chaos.
And that’s what ‘Deepwater Horizon‘ excels at; portraying the ordinary people involved in the explosion. These aren’t typical heroes but normal, well-rounded people who have a job to do, instructions to follow and families to feed. In this respect, the casting of Mark Wahlberg actually goes against this ideal but more on that later. The movie may portray an incredibly positive portrayal of the drill workers but the film isn’t a “normal person = good – business person = bad” mentality. Early on in the movie, the crew try to determine the cause of the increasing pressure at the base of the drill and instead of saying “Who cares!? We need to drill because MONEY!”, John Malkovich’s character actually takes out a white-board and starts drawing diagrams and explaining what HE thinks is happening. This isn’t a businessman who just lets grunts make him money, he actually has knowledge of the drilling process and wants to rationalise the events due to them being way behind schedule.
Much like ‘Everest‘ last year (which, is a very good comparison not just because of its close proximity as it was released at a very similar time in 2015) the film does a good job at explaining the ins and the outs of the process. Whether it’s climbing a mountain or drilling for oil, there’s a well-worn system in place in how these things are done in the modern day and both ‘Everest‘ and ‘Deepwater Horizon‘ managed to inform audiences of those systems without expending character and/or story-momentum. It goes a long way to helping to explain exactly how the explosion happened but when you also include the likeable characters as well as the incredible production values, it feels just as substantive as watching a basic documentary on the event.
Once the explosion happens around 45-50 minutes into the movie, it simply doesn’t stop resulting in a breathless and intense final hour of the movie. It’s just a series of terrible events, one after another and the movie does a great job at putting audiences into the centre of the action. There’s a lot of seemingly insurmountable hurdles to overcome in this film, such as the fact that thanks to the fire anything metal is scalding-hot to the touch, you’re in the middle of the ocean where help is dozens of miles away and thanks to the leaking oil setting it alight the water around them is LITERALLY ON FIRE. Exploding glass, collapsing structures, preventing the drill from separating from the seabed…the fire is the LEAST of the workers’ problems.
But going back to Mark Wahlberg, honestly, he’s easily the weakest part of the movie. That’s not to say that he’s bad as he always comes across as earnest and sincere regardless of the material he’s in but he’s so identifiably Mark Wahlberg that it seems to go against the “normal people” approach the movie is going for. Mark Wahlberg is a good actor, don’t get me wrong, but he’s not a character actor like Kurt Russell meaning that I don’t see real-life Mike Williams when watching the movie (and not just because Marky-Mark looks NOTHING like the real Mark Williams); I see Mark Wahlberg in a rig-worker costume. While Kurt Russell is a famous actor as well, he has more range as an actor and doesn’t have so many distinct mannerisms meaning he can disappear into roles whereas Wahlberg can’t help but be Wahlberg.
But the rest of the cast do well in what feels like an ensemble-piece such as John Malkovich going above and beyond to make sure he’s not playing a one-note villain, Kurt Russell being the experienced voice of reason, Gina Rodriguez playing the still-learning mechanic and Dylen O’Brien as a rookie engineer. All of them and the rest of the cast do a great job of humanising the cast as well as portraying those who died in the explosion that day. Minor roles like the coast guards learning about the fire, to Mike’s wife and daughter at home all leave an impact, even though it would have been nice to see more from them.
But what made ‘Deepwater Horizon‘ go above and beyond was how it depicted the aftermath. While the oil spill, its containment, clean-up and impact are not mentioned, the film shows the emotional effect the explosion had on those involved, particularly from Mike who has full-on PTSD and the film makes sure to dedicate some time to that. The people who survived on the Deepwater Horizon, who were injured and saw their friends and co-workers killed weren’t the same afterwards and the credits of the film lets us know what many of them did after the explosion with some never going out to sea again.
Much like other tentpole disaster films in recent years like ‘Gravity‘ and ‘Everest‘, ‘Deepwater Horizon‘ is a great looking and sounding film that needs to be seen on an IMAX screen. Even before the action kicks off around 45-50 minutes into the movie, we’re still treated to great ocean-scapes, aerial cinematography and that’s not even getting into the massive re-creation of the Deepwater Horizon which was about 80% of the size of the real thing built in Louisiana, in an eight-month endeavour spear-headed by art director Chris Seagers. Then it gets destroyed in less than an hour of screen time and the results are visually arresting.
You really feel the heat on the screen, you feel the intensity of the situation and the sound design is Oscar-calibre as well. ‘Deepwater Horizon‘ will likely be nominated for numerous technical awards come Oscar-time and it deserves all of them, including make-up which can’t have been easy to maintain in the intense temperatures. Both practical sets and green-screen work are working in perfect harmony with ‘Deepwater Horizon‘ with brilliant cinematography and well-staged set-pieces.
‘Deepwater Horizon‘ puts audiences into the eye of the storm of the biggest events of the 21st century and tells a human story of survival, team-work and just who capitalism can hurt when left un-checked. But it’s not a message-mongering movie as Peter Berg and co. are more concerned with telling the often unheard story of those who were at the centre of these events and apart from the mere presense of Mark Wahlberg they succeeded. This is not an anti-capitalist movie, but it can show the devastation that it can bring if the circumstances are just right. The production values are brilliant, the performances are strong, the true-story is well told, the film is just a brilliant big-screen package that is tense, exciting and also devastating at points as well as being easily the best film of Peter Berg’s career.
I give ‘Deepwater Horizon‘ 4 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 30th Dec 16