Myopic "Deepwater Horizon" Not Short On Thrills

If excavating a 100-minute tale of heroism out of a preventable real-life tragedy that took eleven lives and spilled over two-hundred million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico seems crass, that’s because it is. Worse yet: depicting but one brief instance of environmental impact therein (an oil-slicked pelican). But Peter Berg’s “Deepwater Horizon” is more than tunnel-visioned nonfiction. It’s also bravura moviemaking, by turns depoliticizing its subject matter and immersing viewers in it completely. The “Lone Survivor” director has turned catastrophe into a state-of-the-art theme park ride, forgoing tact for giant, whooshing thrills – and the results are undeniably impressive.

Act one brings a workmanlike mixture of light character work and ominous underwater establishing shots, never letting us think for a second that Transocean’s flagship rig isn’t in a very bad way. Berg is in immediate command of tone and pace, chugging along towards inevitable ruin.

Mark Wahlberg headlines as Mike Williams, Deepwater Horizon’s chief electronics technician. It’s an unflashy role, one that requires the star to tone down his patented cocksure Bostonian. He does it surprisingly well. As Mike readies to leave his family for three weeks at sea, it’s obvious that Wahlberg is doing a slightly more nuanced version of the doomed fisherman he played in Wolfgang Petersen’s “The Perfect Storm.” It works. All the while, Mike’s daughter Sydney (Stella Allen) practices a school report that doubles as an information dump for moviegoers. Everything we need to know about oil drilling is industriously unpacked and soon our protagonist kisses his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) goodbye. He’s off to his home away from home, the eponymous mobile drilling unit that’s currently forty miles off the coast of Louisiana.

Also en route: offshore installation manager Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) and bridge officer Andrew Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez). Russell’s innate lovability fills in the blanks in his character that the screenplay misses, while Fleytas’ warm presence works similarly. They’re both obvious good eggs who will inevitably join Mike Williams in various acts of heroism. None are ideals of character development, but they’re functional, never overshadowing Berg’s mind for tension and atmosphere.

The picture’s primary human villain is less successful. John Malkovich plays the rig’s lead BP supervisor Donald Vidrine, going King-Kong-sized with his performance. Sporting a ridiculous Cajun accent, he stresses the character’s reckless decision-making with everything but literal mustache twirling (presumably because the character doesn’t have a mustache), all while grinning like a cartoon devil. It’s the closest the film comes to finger-pointing, but the character is too one-dimensional to boil any blood, and he’s written so broadly as to let nearly everyone else – both on and off the rig – off the hook.

But the blowout, subsequent explosion, and climactic escape are the real star attractions here. And they’re worth every cent from the pockets of producers and moviegoers, both.

Maze Runner” star Dylan O’Brien plays a small but pivotal role as a technician caught in the initial blowout. He’s our avatar during the initial blast, putting us inside the chamber where a dozen men are caught in a maelstrom of oil and mud. Some are taken out by debris, others by the ensuing fire. We never get to know any of the men who died in real life, but their general anonymity in the film somehow makes the events more dramatic – and far less emotionally calculating than they might have been. The hell that Russell’s character goes through is traumatic enough, allowing us to imagine the anguish that the deceased went through in their final moments.

The blowout sequence itself is a doozy, a frenzy of pitch perfect special effects and sound design – save for a few silly shots from the oil’s point-of-view. The resultant explosion, fire, and rescue are nearly as technically impressive, with Berg maintaining both the tautness and economical pacing of the film’s first hour. Instead of feeling drawn out (there was certainly a longer version of the film to be made), everything feels tight and immediate, milking neither drama nor action.

In the pantheon of recent disaster pics, “Deepwater Horizon” is much more “Everest” than “San Andreas,” its characters good enough, the action superb, and the temptation of long-winded melodrama largely resisted. If it’s not the definitive portrait of Berg’s still-improving filmmaking chops, it’s close, suggesting that 2012’s “Battleship” might have been a fluke after all.

The fog of tragedy-as-entertainment that hangs over the film is a problem, as is the screenplay’s divorce from environmental impact. But as a vessel for terror and thrills, “Deepwater Horizon” is hard to fault. Once in the film’s grasp, there’s no way out, no matter how much of the true story it leaves on the table.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: September 30, 2016
Studio: Summit Entertainment (Lionsgate)
Director: Peter Berg
Screenwriter: Matthew Sand, Matthew Carnahan
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Dylan O’Brien, Gina Rodriguez, Kate Hudson
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for prolonged intense disaster sequences and related disturbing images, and brief strong language)