REVIEW | "Deepwater” a tense, engrossing disaster film

In this recent stage of his career, director Peter Berg seems determined to take recent real life American tragedies and transform them into beefy, balls to the wall action flicks. And I have to admit, he’s pretty damn good at it.

In “Lone Survivor," four Navy Seals (including lone survivor Marcus Luttrell) get stranded behind enemy lines in Afghanistan, forced to take on an entire Taliban army. Now, in “Deepwater Horizon,” Berg depicts the devastating 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig, leading to biggest oil spill in U.S history.  Later this year, (or next year) we will get a film dramatizing the Boston Marathon bombing in “Patriots Day.” Neither “Lone Survivor” nor “Deepwater Horizon;” is deeply profound; one is a fairly standard straightforward war film; the other is a fairly standard straightforward disaster flick. During a TV spot for “Deepwater” I saw a critic quote calling it: “The most important movie of the year.” Yeah…not even close. Yet, both films are visceral, highly absorbing additions to their respective genres. Berg knows how to grab you by the throat and not let up.

“Deepwater Horizon” is the kind of film that makes you yelp, cringe and ache along with the characters onscreen. You can’t take your eyes off the action, yet you also feel like breaking away and hiding under your seat. In “Lone Survivor” the SEALS take multiple painful tumbles down rocky hills. In “Deepwater Horizon” lethal, rapid-fire explosions, along with spewing mud and oil, flank the two hundred plus rig workers. And they get pieces of glass and jagged metal pulled out of their feet and other body parts--something that will always make me recoil in pain and discomfort.  By the end you feel beaten down and depleted, although that’s how you should feel. Berg immerses you in the mayhem and you feel like you’re on that exploding rig.

The film takes its time getting started, showing the arrival of the Deepwater crew. We meet Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg, buffed up, in hero mode again) as he eats breakfast with his wife and daughter before heading off to the rig, along with Andrea Fleytas, (Gina Rodriguez) Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell, mustached up and ready to go) and other rig workers. Berg patiently explores the interworking’s of the oil rig including the drill itself and emphasizes the various interactions between crewmembers onboard, showing their small talk and casual BSing. All to create a sense of calm and order--calm and order that will be shattered soon enough.

We also meet the BP oil employees headed up by Vidrine (John Malkovich). With his baldhead and confusing Cajun accent, Malkovich’s appearance and performance tends to border on cartoonish. In fact they all come across as one-note villains who want to skimp on safety procedures and tests because it’s costing them precious mula. Overall, none of the characterizations are particularly nuanced; the crewmembers (including Williams) are presented simply as friendly, hardworking people who go on to exhibit extreme courage, while the BP men are slimy and cowardly.  

Throughout this introductory section you know something bad is going to happen. Even if you knew nothing about the real disaster or managed to miss all promotional material and plot information, all signs point to catastrophe. However, to Berg’s credit, when chaos reigns you’re not prepared for the intensity and duration of it. The disaster portion of the film is relentless—terror and tension mount with each passing moment. Explosions of mud, fire, metal, and oil are rampant. The situation goes from bad, to worse, to flaming nightmarish hellscape, literally so. At one point the rig is a ball of fire.

Berg and co. don’t always have a grip on the action. Cinematographer Enrique Chediak shoots the film primarily in tight, hand held close ups (providing a sense of claustrophobia) which can be incredibly affective but also too disorienting, muddling the continuity of the action at times. Furthermore, the picture loses track of then causalities of the disaster. In “Lone Survivor” there were only four SEALS, making the situation more intimate and inevitable deaths and impactful. In “Deepwater” the casualties are more or less background characters. You forget them. I realize the movie is as much about the bravery of Williams, Fleytas, Harrell and the other survivors as it is the victims but adding a little more dimension to some of them (in total, eleven people died) would have made the final “in memoriam” segment all the more impactful.

“Deepwater Horizon” tells a very small part of an otherwise massive, sprawling story. You could easily make a movie (maybe even two) about the oil spill and the legal aftermath of the explosion. But for the sake of film I think it’s better that Berg focused all his energies on this one turbulent chapter instead of trying to bite off more than he could chew. I wish Rodriguez had been given more to do. The film sets her up as the secondary protagonist but by the end she gets pushed to the side so Wahlberg can do all the heroic stuff. Even so, “Deepwater” is still a tense, engrossing disaster film.