Editor’s Note: Deepwater Horizon opens in wide theatrical release today, September 30, 2016.
Serious question: Where would we be without former-rapper-turned-actor Mark Wahlberg? Without Wahlberg, the world wouldn’t be safe from toxic, lethal plant life (The Happening), belligerent, hyper-intelligent primates (Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake), Irish mobsters (The Departed), government conspiracies (Shooter), or never-ending alien robot invasions (Transformers: Age of Extinction, next year’s Transformers: The Last Knight). Until now, however, he hasn’t saved us from a deep water oil drilling rig turned fiery, floating inferno. In Deepwater Horizon, Wahlberg steps in the real-life overalls and boots of Mike Williams, an All-American (White Male) Hero (a Wahlberg specialty almost two decades old) who miraculously survived the catastrophic destruction of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20th, 2010.
Typically for Berg, a longtime adherent of the choreographed chaos school of action filmmaking, Deepwater Horizon devolves into a cacophony of ear-rending explosions, shrieks of metal engulfed in flames, and waves and walls of fire quickly closing in on the heroes.
The Deepwater Horizon explosion caused the single worst ecological disaster in American history, but the aftermath receives only a passing mention, a title card (white type on a black background) seconds before the end credits roll. Working from a tech-speak heavy script written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, Peter Berg (Lone Survivor, Battleship, The Kingdom), an action-oriented director with a predilection for simplistic, surface-deep explorations of American masculinity, keeps Deepwater Horizon resolutely focused on the events leading to and the immediate aftermath of the explosion. Berg’s interest lies exclusively with the men – and one woman, Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) – who lived and died on the Deepwater Horizon, placing the blame for its destruction on the personification of corporate greed, Vidrine (John Malkovich), a senior BP (British Petroleum) executive who pushes Mike’s boss, Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), to forego safety checks and tests in save money ($125K for a cement test that never happens) and make up for lost time (the Deepwater Horizon is 43 days behind schedule). Vidrine’s shortsightedness ends up costing Transocean, the Deepwater Horizon’s actual owners, their oil drilling rig and the 11 men their lives.
In predictably reductive contrast, Williams represents everything good and noble about the American Dream, especially, if not specifically for, white American men. He has a loving wife, Felicia (Kate Hudson), and a young daughter back home, while his easygoing, self-confident demeanor on the oil rig makes him a de facto leader, especially after the Deepwater Horizon goes boom and survival becomes of paramount importance. Just as predictably, Carnahan and Sand’s screenplay uses the first act to introduce key characters and supporting players, the second act to build suspense as increasingly dire signs point to an impending explosion, and the third act for the effects-heavy, spectacle-driven survival story. Typically for Berg, a longtime adherent of the choreographed chaos school of action filmmaking, Deepwater Horizon devolves into a cacophony of ear-rending explosions, shrieks of metal engulfed in flames, and waves and walls of fire quickly closing in on the heroes. Harrell faces a particularly wrenching personal hell: He’s in mid-shower when the first explosion hits, necessitating an escape through a bathroom filled with broken glass.
Berg’s attempt at wringing emotion from the final moments of the Deepwater Horizon and the 11 men who lost their lives feels hollow, muted, and ultimately perfunctory.
Deepwater Horizon, however, never feels like more than spectacle first, substance filmmaking, a product of Berg and his screenwriters’ seemingly deliberate inattention to character, characterization, and character development. Outside of Williams and Fleytas (she gets a scene with a barely seen boyfriend and an obsession with her Mustang), Deepwater Horizon keeps the characters at a remove. Given the similarity of builds, facial hair, and clothing, it’s often difficult to distinguish characters beyond the main three, the odious BP executives led by Vidrine, and maybe one or two other characters, Berg’s attempt at wringing emotion from the final moments of the Deepwater Horizon and the 11 men who lost their lives feels hollow, muted, ultimately perfunctory, an obligatory defense against the expected criticism of Deepwater Horizon as exploitative and/or sensationalistic. It’s both. Then again, it certainly could have been worse. That might sound like faint praise, but at least it’s honest praise.
Deepwater Horizon is more concerned with spectacle than substance, director Peter Berg deliberately reducing characterization and development to the point that characters can barely be distinguished from each other, which turns the intended emotional impact of the film into something shallow and perfunctory.