Deepwater Horizon review: watching bad spills happen to good people

There’s an argument to be made that films and TV shows based on harrowing, true-life tragedies serve as a form of collective cultural catharsis. They can bring order to chaos, give context to horror, and provide a general framework that allows us to move on. With the rise of modern long-form documentaries, reexamining old tragedies can even be used as a lens to examine larger, deep-seated cultural issues.

And then sometimes it’s just all about good old-fashioned rubbernecking.

Deepwater Horizon, the new film from director Peter Berg (Lone Survivor), is the story of the catastrophic explosion that rocked the offshore oil rig in 2010, leaving 11 members of its crew dead and causing one of the worst ecological disasters in the history of the United States. It’s an effective piece of action filmmaking: loud, raucous, and filled with some gripping moments of real dread. But it’s also a film without a purpose, one that seems to delight in destruction and death just for the thrill of it.

Mark Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, chief electronics technician on the Deepwater Horizon, who has the kind of impossibly precocious daughter and perfect wife (Kate Hudson) that you only see in movies about people who are about to find themselves in mortal danger. Mike’s a stand-up guy, whose focus on safety and doing the right thing is only matched by his boss, Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell at his most affable).

Meet your villains: John Malkovich and Buddy Garrity

When they arrive on the rig for a three-week tour, Mike and Mr. Jimmy learn that a safety procedure had recently been ignored due to the intervention of Vidrine and Kaluza, two executives from the oil company BP. (The execs are played by John Malkovich and Brad "Buddy Garrity" Leland, so you know they’re heartless scumbags the minute they show up on screen.) With the Deepwater Horizon already behind schedule, Vidrine is anxious to get the well back up and running, and talks Mr. Jimmy into ignoring a few vital warning signs to speed things along — which leads to the catastrophic accident that took down the rig in real life.

The film is based on "Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours," an exhaustive article from The New York Times about the incident, and Wahlberg, Malkovich, and nearly the entire rest of the cast are all playing actual people that were there on that fateful day. But that doesn’t stop Deepwater Horizon from playing things as big as it possibly can, whether it’s Vidrine’s villainy or Mr. Jimmy’s aw-shucks sainthood. But nobody ever saw The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure for the nuanced character work, and Deepwater Horizon leans into that even as the requirements of the booming disaster movie it wants to be seem somewhat at odds with the solemnity of the actual subject matter.

Deepwater Horizon expertly handles the slow build up to the disaster, making complex machinery understandable, and imbuing things like pressure levels and kill lines with a kind of talismanic power. The film’s best moments come as the audience, knowing full well what kind of movie they’re watching, witness bad decisions being made one after the other. The tension builds, and the only thing that’s unclear is just exactly how the inevitable catastrophe will finally strike. When it does, it’s almost as if the movie cracks its knuckles and rolls up its sleeves: now watch this.

Berg delivers on that promise as the film barrels through a series of set pieces that seem to destroy the oil rig one piece at a time. When the movie takes moments to pull back from the chaos, the visuals are harrowing: a fire-strewn hellscape of burning metal slowly closing in on the 115 survivors as they desperately try to find a way to get off the rig. But just as often Berg shoots his action in a combination of close-ups and insert shots, the camera bouncing from moment to moment. It lends a chaotic and claustrophobic feel to many sequences — particularly as Wahlberg looks for survivors inside the rig after the massive explosion — but other times it’s incomprehensible, obscuring what character the audience is even looking at, and forcing them to rely on the pounding score to understand whether something good or bad is about to happen on-screen.

It's unclear what story Peter Berg really wants to tell

It’s still undeniably engaging, but between the caricatured leads and the shaky-cam action, it starts to become unclear what story Deepwater Horizon really wants to tell. It’s not quite the heroism-and-bravery tale the trailers promise, and it’s not a nuanced look at people dealing with the aftermath of tragedy, either. As the film falls in love with its geysers of fire and multiple catastrophes, it’s hard to escape the feeling that on some level, Deepwater Horizon is just trying to appeal to our base desire to watch bad things happen to people, without any larger message or purpose — the cinematic equivalent of slowing down on the freeway to check out a car crash.

That would be fine if we were talking about a film about the end of the world or some other fictional scenario, but Deepwater Horizon traffics on the fact that it is based on an actual tragedy. (The end credits even feature a photo roll-call of the 11 people that lost their lives on the rig.) That framing almost demands it offer something more substantive than simply re-creating a series of events. Not using it to make a point about the economic and regulatory forces that allowed the tragedy to occur makes the whole thing feel somewhat hollow and cynical, like manipulation masquerading as good will. There’s no question that Deepwater Horizon delivers thrills, but you may feel awfully empty afterward.

Deepwater Horizon opens on September 30th.

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