This side of the 20th century has seen a noticeable rise in films based on recent events and tragedies. After all, United 93 and World Trade Center released not even five years after the September 11 attacks, and Captain Phillips came four years after the Maersk Alabama hijacking. Filmmaker Peter Berg is part of this trend as well, as he has two such films in this year alone: Deepwater Horizon, depicting the 2010 explosion on the titular drilling rig, and Patriots Day, recounting the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. The former arrived in theaters this past weekend, and while its portrayal of events is limited to a fault, it does make for a terrifying and visceral disaster film.
Though the 2010 explosion on Deepwater Horizon led to the largest oil spill in U.S. waters, Berg chooses to solely focus on the days leading up to the incident, the explosion itself, and the immediate aftermath for the workers onboard – a storytelling decision that works in the moment but not so much after. It’s clear that Berg wants his film to be about the heroism of the workers as they find themselves in a horrifying situation, with the disastrous environmental aftermath relegated to a mere mention in the closing credits. As good as Berg’s intentions may be, it’s difficult to shake off this feeling of “So what?” once the film ends; it lacks staying power, and perhaps addressing the oil spill itself would have made for a more effective film. That isn’t to say the film has no bite, as it keeps the finger of blame pointed squarely at BP (British Petroleum), but the impact could have been much greater had it depicted the wider scope of this tragedy. Beyond that, Berg does handle the pre-incident sequences fairly well, as we really get to understand what daily life looks and feels like onboard the rig. Sure, the jargon and vocabulary may be complicated, but they’re nevertheless a natural part of this world and thus help us settle in it. The characters themselves are quite likable, though some – like Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) and Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) – should be fleshed out more.
Berg has assembled a top-notch cast for this picture, and they get good mileage out of their characters, regardless of how limited they may be. Wahlberg slips into the role of a reliable everyman with ease, and he’s more than capable of handling the physical demands. Kurt Russell is superb as the trustworthy Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell, expressing a gravelly warmth and standing his ground well against his fellow co-stars. There’s an irresistible playfulness in Rodriguez’s performance that makes the character’s easygoing demeanor click, and she holds her own very admirably. Armed with a condescending Cajun accent, John Malkovich is delightfully scummy as BP supervisor Donald Vidrine. Also featured is Kate Hudson as Mike’s wife Felicia, and while she shares a nice chemistry with Wahlberg, she ultimately and unfortunately doesn’t have all that much to do in the film.
When it comes to portraying the explosion, the film becomes an unrelenting assault on the senses, and its verisimilitude goes a long way in making the experience ring true. Perhaps the biggest star being showcased here is the set model of the actual rig that was painstakingly built for this production. Its authenticity coaxes us into this world that feels very lived-in, from the cool hallways to the grimy decks. The powerful bursts of mud and oil, along with the thunderous shockwaves from the explosion, are brought to life with near-cacophonous sound design. Enrique Chediak’s cinematography takes a sudden turn from clean and sleek to murky and shaky once the incident occurs, and he does well in navigating us through darkened rooms and smoke-heavy exteriors while following the characters. Seeing what we’ve come to know get utterly destroyed is absolutely frightening, and that comes down to the technical crew’s superb work.
Deepwater Horizon is strong as an immediate cinematic experience, though its limited focus doesn’t quite help its staying power. Berg’s approach to bringing this tragedy to the big screen may not be the best way to go about it. A disaster like this stays with us whether we like it or not; the film based on it should do the same.
* Photos courtesy of Summit Entertainment