Deepwater Horizon (2016)

As Actors Turned Directors go, it can’t be denied that Peter Berg is one of the better, more successful ones. He first came to my attention with the gallows humor-heavy flick ‘Very Bad Things’ (1998), a movie that I still find darkly and gruesomely hilarious. Judge me as you will. He followed that one up with ‘The Rundown’ in 2003, setting the stage for Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s rise to cinematic Action Hero stardom. In 2007, he gave us the intense and timely ‘The Kingdom’ (still one of best expository intros of all time), which also served to show us the gritty and realistic visual approach (think Tony Scott with  a few less edits) he would later take on in his career.Then he stumbled a little with ‘Hancock’ (2008), and flat out tripped with the pretty-to-look-at but disastrous ‘Battleship’ (2012). Luckily, he quickly bounced back with the surprisingly strong military drama ‘Lone Survivor’ (2013). This was his first team up with Mark Wahlberg (‘Boogie Nights’) and it worked out nicely. So when I heard that they were teaming up again to tell the story of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster of 2010, I was immediately interested. Berg’s gritty and largely uncompromising style seemed tailor-made for the subject matter, so it ended up on my Must See list.
‘Deepwater Horizon’ is the boots-on-the-ground telling of the largest, most destructive oil spill disaster in US history. We largely follow the Chief Electrician ‘Mike Williams’ (Mark Wahlberg) as he begins his latest shift on the platform. Leading operations on the rig is ‘Jimmy Harrell’ (Kurt Russell), a seasoned realist, who’s rapidly eroding patience with the greedy and negligent BP executives immediately puts him into conflict with his bosses, notably ‘Vidrine’ (John Malkovich). It seems that the previous crew was changed out before a crucial ‘cement test’ was conducted to ensure the integrity of the sea-bed and the base around the drilling location. This leads to an ad hoc ‘negative pressure’ test, that causes a fatal instability in the submerged pipeline leading up to the rig. There’s a catastrophic failure that results in an unchecked pressure release that destroys most of the inner workings of the drilling operation and sets off a massive explosion, dooming the floating oil rig and endangering the lives of everyone on board.
This is one of the best Action Dramas I’ve seen in a while…and there wasn’t one gun to be seen! It was refreshing. This is an intense flick, well-punctuated by snappy, engaging dialogue, believable performances, and even more believable set-pieces. As I predicted, Peter Berg brought an effective grit and realism to the story. Nothing felt flashy or ‘movie-like’. I was caught up in the drama from the get-go, right to the touching end credits, that play over pictures and names of the 11 workers who died in the inferno and sinking of the rig.
Right off the bat, I have to give props to the cast. Mark Wahlberg was great, infusing his ‘Mike Williams’ with a humanity that I found refreshing (that I’m sure the real Mike Williams appreciated) and was NOTHING like the beef-cake moron cartoon character he ‘played’ in the last piece of shit ‘Transformers’ movie (that I STILL haven’t brought myself to finish). I love that they let him soften his underwear-model physique and made him something of an obsessive compulsive, while also being a solid and loving Family Man. Kate Hudson turns up as his wife and the chemistry between them felt real, with a lot of quipy banter bouncing back and forth between them. Hudson’s step-dad, Kurt Russell was his usual, awesome self as a dedicated man of authority who did what he could, in the face of dangerous corporate greed, to right a wrong situation before it happened, but not in time to prevent disaster. John Malkovich was also solid (surprise, surprise), playing a BP executive with dollar signs in his eyes blinding him to the safety protocols needed to keep operations going…and people alive. He wasn’t quite the mustache-twirling villain, but he was the closest thing to it that this story was going to get…or needed. Other familiar faces flesh out the rest of the crew and they all do what they needed to do to tell this dramatic depiction.
Another aspect deserving of mention is the tightness of the script and the efficient pacing of the film. There isn’t one wasted scene on display in the entire 1 hour and 47 minute run-time. We’re given just enough solid exposition about our main characters that we’re on their side from the start, and in very little time, they’re on their way to the doomed rig. Once there, the situation is quickly laid out for us in terms that were both technically accurate-sounding but also accessible to a general audience. There’s a brilliant scene at the beginning in which ‘Williams’ young daughter presents him with a rehearsal of her ‘My Daddy Does….for a Living’ project, which served to both show us the charming inner workings of their family life, while also illustrating the concept that’s going to kick off the impending disaster. Very clear and to-the-point writing, with very little in the way of needless frills. Once the situation on the Deepwater Horizon goes to shit, the pace and tension continue to ramp up to a nail-biting crescendo. Also, I found that this flick didn’t quite adhere to the traditional 3 Act structure…it was more of a 2 halves kind of deal. The Set-Up and the Pay Off, aka Our Characters and Our Conflict. Normally I’d feel cheated to realize that was the mechanics of the story, but here it worked well with the story, in my opinion.
On a technical level, this movie is masterfully handled. I loved the scenes of the staging area for the rig personnel, which had a wide-angle, ‘telephoto lens’ military feel to them that would be right at home in something like ‘Black Hawk Down’ (2001) or, more appropriately, Berg’s own ‘Lone Survivor’. Seeing the scope of the operation made the events seem as big as they probably deserve to feel. The cinematography, even just for simple shots like a truck driving down a road or a helicopter flying out to sea, looked fantastic. Things then get even more impressive as the characters have to navigate the burning, exploding hell-scape the rig becomes. I would be hard-pressed to tell you where the real flames ended and the CG ones began.
Complimenting the visuals was a kick-ass Sound Design. Small sounds, in the 1st half before things go bad, were immersive and clear, but when things get loud, it’s a ride! I love me some good, fiery blasts and I was definitely well-served here, in that regard. When the initial massive fireball happens, it looked and sounded so impressive that I literally caught my mouth dropping open in awe. The Blu Ray for this could easily become reference-level for upper-quality Home Theatre Sound Systems. A helluva lotta work went into ‘selling’ the terrible and perilous environment and situation the survivors have to fight through and we, the audience, are made to feel every blast, every piece of high-velocity debris and every wave of the ocean in the process.
All in all, ‘Deepwater Horizon’ is a supremely well-constructed film about a horrible contemporary disaster that negatively affected both humans and Nature alike, all in the name of greed and negligence. I appreciated that Berg resisted the urge to ‘Michael Bay’ the living shit out of the dramatic elements (even though Bay would approve of a couple shots, I will admit), and opted to keep the action and drama more or less grounded. The cast is very good, the pacing sweeps the viewer along, and we are told key details that many of us probably missed when this incident was dominating the headlines. The use of the actual testimony footage and the pictures and names of the crew members killed in the accident was a sobering reminder that, while this may be a Big Budget dramatization, it’s based on a real incident that had a lasting effect on those involved and the oil industry as a whole. ‘Deepwater Horizon’ is a damn good movie that deserves to do a LOT better than it currently is at the Box Office (it’s shaping up to be a bomb, domestically). Given the spectacle of the presentation, I can easily recommend this one for The Big Screen, but if you miss it there…definitely check it out on it’s Home Release.

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