“Deepwater Horizon feels like two different movies that have gotten shortened and stuffed into a single package.”
by Ken Bakely
The problem with Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon is that it accomplishes something that I suspect was largely accidental. This movie works fairly well as a megabudget disaster movie set on an oil rig, complete with a second half which is a compilation of characters shouting at each other as things explode behind them, and large setpieces of visually pleasing destruction. However, it’s obvious that Berg’s goal was to create something more along the lines of a socially conscious message movie. That’s at least what the first half of the film tries to pull off. Combined with that apocalyptic payoff, it’s a jarring, bumpy ride.
In 2010, as you will likely recall, the BP vessel Deepwater Horizon exploded at sea in the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven men died in the event itself, and billions of barrels of oil severely polluted the water. To date, it is the largest disaster in the history of the petroleum industry. Berg, and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, angle this recreation of the events from the perspective of Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), a technician aboard the rig. His supervisor, Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), is under stress as he and his team are monitored by several suits from the company. Headed up by Donald Vidrine (a scenery-chewing, heavily Cajun-ized John Malkovich), the BP execs neglect basic security protocol as they push the workers to complete the over-schedule, over-budget project. One night, the pressure exerted from the well reaches a critical point, but the orders come down to keep things going.
We know what happens next, and the film doesn’t hold back. Around the halfway mark of the 107 minute movie, Berg semiconsciously makes a drastic shift in the film’s tone. Shaky, handheld conversional two-handers give way to crane shots of fireballs erupting, throwing debris, gallons of oil, and ragdoll-like bodies in massively scaled, omnidirectional sequences. There isn’t a sense of exploitation because the movie doesn’t linger on this, but simply presents it in a matter-of-fact way. Strappy occasions of heroism and perseverance are what Deepwater Horizon focuses on, and that kind of rustic old-cinema quality gives these scenes a traditional emotional core.
Yet for all the Hollywoodizing of real-life people, the film still feels uninteresting during the occasions where it’s trying to drive a point home. Protagonists and antagonists alike are turned into faces you can pull out. Scenes in which Malkovich grins and slurs his way through sentences feel like some kind of rough caricature rather than an actual attempt at recreating the moods and tensions which led to the disaster occurring in the first place. It’s almost impossible to justify the actions of the BP reps, and it would be grossly inappropriate if Berg tried to do so, but the opposite action – brushing through these scenes as perfunctorily as possible – doesn’t deliver a meaningful impact. In this respect, Deepwater Horizon feels like two different movies that have gotten shortened and stuffed into a single package.
Besides being a tonal issue, this structural flaw manifests itself as a pacing dilemma as well. There is an innate difficulty in processing the film’s components when they fail to interlock. Berg has, in the most literal sense, “made” a movie, and that movie is technically proficient and solidly mounted. As a director, he operates as a craftsman, guiding his actors through the maelstrom of events which take place around them. He knows how to shoot an action scene and he knows that a large degree of context is needed when making a disaster film out of a real-life tragedy. But somewhere between the script revisions and picture lock (i.e. nearly anywhere), Deepwater Horizon failed to fully bring itself together. One is more likely to walk away from the film thinking about the scope of the visual effects than the continued relevance of the events in which they are based. And clearly, that’s not the intention here.