The problem I’ve often had with films directed by Peter Berg, even the ones I’ve liked, have been that he feels the need to have all the knobs turned up as far as they’ll go—the action knob, the emotional knob, all of it—to the point where there’s no room in his films for subtlety or any question what someone is feeling at any given moment. It’s as if Berg believes that leaving room for interpretation is a sign of weakness. I’m a great admirer of his early works like The Rundown and Friday Night Lights, but once he got to films like The Kingdom, Hancock and the appalling Battleship, it began to feel like Berg was in self-parody mode.
But with his three most current films—Lone Survivor, this week’s Deepwater Horizon, and Patriots Day which is due out at the end of the year and is about the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon—Berg has made yet another adjustment. First, he’s telling true stories, as if by grounding himself in reality, he might be less inclined to make everything so overblown. Second, he’s working with Mark Wahlberg, with whom he shares a sensibility about understanding that even a real-life event can be a type of action movie or thriller. So far, the pairing seems to be paying off, and the quality of the work is improving vastly.
The most interesting thing about Berg and Deepwater Horizon is that he didn’t start out as the director. When filmmaker J.C. Chandor dropped out during production, Berg stepped in while in pre-production for Patriots Day. Since the gears were already in motion, Berg was effectively brought in to finish something in full swing, which works to the film’s advantage, since there doesn’t need to be any enhancement of this already horrific tale of the 2010 BP offshore oil rig explosion that killed 11 of 126 workers that remains the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history. This telling is essentially a no-frills breakdown of the events leading up to the initial explosion, followed by the disaster, and the unspeakable aftermath in terms of the human cost.
For the record, this is not a story about the magnitude of the oil spill, the cleanup, or the long-term impact on the Gulf Coast region. No, this is a film about how a greedy oil company (represented by the wonderfully outrageous John Malkovich’s Donald Vidrine, with a Louisiana accent that could cut glass) skimped on safety measures, which led to an unprecedented disaster. To call this an accident isn’t exactly accurate; the signs were there that something was amiss, and they were ignored because these pressure tests didn’t indicate anything catastrophic was at hand. Knowing what we know now, it seems reckless, but at the time, it was likely business as usual for BP.
Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, leaving his wife (Kate Hudson) and daughter to go live on an oil rig for a few weeks. The first part of the movie is devoted to not just meeting the crew, which includes the boss man Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) and one of the only women on staff, Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez of “Jane the Virgin”). I love that this part of the film is painstakingly methodical; there’s no rush to get to the explosions. Berg and writers Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand (working from a New York Times article by David Rohde and Stephanie Saul) want to trace the final hours of the Deepwater Horizon and allow the tension to build so steadily that you’re about ready to scream by the time things begin to go sideways. There’s a lot of technical jargon that may not make any sense, but you’ll understand and appreciate the frustration that many of the crew feel that BP has cut corners with everything from the phone systems and the bathrooms to basic tests that are supposed to be conducted when a new line is put into the sea floor.
In addition to watching the rig slowly shake apart before the explosions start, there are a few shots of the pipeline in the sea floor that I simply couldn’t figure out, and they seem unnecessary from a storytelling perspective. But once things start falling apart, you simply hold your breath until everyone who can get off the rig is off. I know how special effects work in most films, but the explosions and other forms of destruction on display in Deepwater Horizon are simply so realistic looking that I was astonished at how palpable the eminent danger threat felt from my theater seat…and that’s just from Malkovich’s acting (I kid; I’m a kidder). I have no idea how true to life the filmmakers tried to be about how the last handful of employees got off the rig, but as Berg lays it out, it seems pretty spectacular (maybe too much so).
Every burn, broken bone, impact and other form of injury feels incredibly authentic here, and I found myself flinching with sympathy pains throughout. Wahlberg’s Williams turns into a bit of an action hero by the end, but if that’s what the man actually did, then maybe he deserves to be seen like one and have a movie built around his accomplishments. Deepwater Horizon is a textbook-perfect example of how to make a modern disaster movie. The heroes and villains are easily identifiable, and the spectacle of the historical event is undeniable. Berg is in job-for-hire mode, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t recognize the inherent cinematic potential of this riveting story or the unfathomable, every day heroism that exists all around us. Because of what this accomplishes, I’ll all the more excited to see what he does with Patriots Day.