I can’t say I was expecting to like DEEPWATER HORIZON. Turning real-world disasters, especially ones where we’re still feeling the impact today, into spectacle can go either way. It couldn’t be too maudlin or grandstanding, it couldn’t be propaganda. What director Peter Berg and writers Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand have produced is honest and grounded, always focussed on the men and the destruction of their lives rather than the destruction of an oil rig and the surrounding environs due to Big Oil’s negligence.
What should have been another day on the oil rig for Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) and his colleagues soon turned to disaster on one fateful day in 2010. This is the story of what they went through, what went wrong and how the impact of this disaster is still reverberating today.
For all his critics, when he is given the right material Mark Wahlberg can be great. Just look at BOOGIE NIGHTS and THE FIGHTER. Here he’s a charming, quick-thinking, working-class hero. He has a believable and poignant relationship with his family (Kate Hudson and Stella Allen, both excellent). He firmly roots this real-life disaster story to Earth and, yes, he does get to real off a list of things really quickly, because if you’ve got a party trick you might as well show it off. Kurt Russell is having a great few years as a sturdy fixed point for plot to revolve around and rocks yet another fine moustache. John Malkovich doesn’t turn in a bad performance, but his BP villain is not especially layered and it’s really bizarre hearing a Cajun accent coming out of his mouth.
Stylistically, Peter Berg’s direction is better during the story’s setup. Here it’s a very classical, good-looking picture full of elegant sweeping crane shots and sturdily framed interiors. Where will the eventual threat come from? Are these lingering shots on show-and-tell projects going wrong and air rushing up from the silty depths a clue? It’s not subtle, but it works. When things on the rig really go south, while the action is raw and visceral, it can be a bit hard to keep track of everything happening on screen when we are seeing rapid cuts of explosion after explosion through shaky-cam. Two of these would be enough, all three are a bit much. You also never need to see a mournfully billowing American flag in a serious drama. That moment, brief as it was, brought me completely out of the action and the well-intentioned storytelling.
The disaster, which proceeds to get worse and worse even when you think it must have reached its peak, would mean nothing without dedicating real time to establishing these characters. They’re all real people doing their jobs, living and laughing, making ends meet and looking forward to the next time they’re allowed home until it becomes a very primal battle for survival. The film’s first half, which introduces us to the key players in the crew at home, then arriving at the oil rig and into passive-aggressive, then aggressive-aggressive conflict with the BP bigwigs, is its real strength, the meat of the movie, impressive and hard-hitting as the disaster-thriller final act is.
Deepwater Horizon is one of the nicest surprises of 2016. Really good performances, old-fashioned filmmaking class and never forgetting the human element in this disaster makes you easily forgive the odd stumble where it goes too “Hollywood”. I saw this at a near-enough-deserted IMAX screening, which was sad, but at the same time justified after seeing what I saw, as big as possible. I urge you to check it out and keep the story of what these brave working men went through alive and in the public eye. SSP