Friday, December 2, 2016

Hell of High Water

In retrospect, it’s not all that surprising Donald Trump won the United States Presidential election. He tapped into something primal among American voters, mainly white, blue-collar people that felt ignored by Barack Obama’s presidency. To be fair, they were ignored by George Bush’s presidency also but this time around the chickens clearly came home to roost. The crime film Hell or High Water (2016) taps into this anger in a way that hasn’t been done since Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly (2012) but whereas that film rubbed its political statement in the audience’s face, this one is a little subtler, a little more nuanced.

“It seems foolish. The days of robbing banks and trying to live to spend the money. They’re long gone. Long gone, for sure.”

A random man laments this early on in Hell or High Water and it encapsulates the nature of it quite well.  Bank heists have been depicted on film every which way you can imagine but director David Mackenzie manages to give it a novel spin by having two aspiring crooks show up to the bank early with only one teller present and she doesn’t have the code for the safe. The two men wait for the manager who shows up and is greeted with the butt end of a handgun to the head. Slam cut to the bank robbers speeding away from the scene of the crime. They hit another bank and are shot at by one of the customers whose packing heat – welcome to West Texas.

The two men are Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster). The latter is the stereotypical wild man who is in it for the thrills (and the money) while the former is trying to get enough money out of this crime spree to pay off the debt on the family ranch before it is foreclosed in a few days. Oil has recently been discovered on the land and he wants to sell the rights and provide for his estranged sons.

Naturally, their little crime spree gets the attention of the law and two Texas Rangers – Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) – investigate. The former is close to retirement and this will probably be his last case. We’ve seen this set up before but the execution is where it counts and the film wastes no time in diving deep and exploring the motivations of the brothers. Tanner maybe a risk taker but, in a smartly acted scene, we see the deep regret he feels over not being there for his mother during her last days. His thrill-seeking behavior is a source of tension between him and Toby who has a plan that he tries to follow.

Chris Pine delivers his strongest performance to date, showing a depth that makes me wish he’d do more of these kinds of films and less of the Star Trek ones. He plays a conflicted character who sees robbing banks as the quickest way to get the money he needs and reluctantly makes a pact with the devil in the form of his brother. Toby has resigned himself to his lot in life, sacrificing himself for his family, aware that his trajectory is probably a fatal one, especially when it involves his loose cannon brother. Pine delivers a soulful performance that is heartfelt. There’s a simple shot of Toby watching the news on television reporting the aftermath of their last bank job and the resignation and utter defeated nature that washes overs his face while also conveyed in his posture is quietly devastating.

Ben Foster is a fascinating character actor to watch, making oddly intriguing choices in forgettable movies like X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and The Mechanic (2011) and disappearing into rich characters in more challenging fare like Rampart (2011) and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013). The actor works hard to flesh out the wild-card brother stereotype through little bits of business, like how Tanner breaks the tension between him and Toby in a scene by singing along to a song on the radio as they are driving in a car.

Jeff Bridges is excellent as a veteran lawman and it is the little choices he makes, like how Marcus rests his hat on his foot while sitting down, that flesh out his character. We also get insight into his character through his interactions with others, like how he puts a shaken young bank teller at ease while questioning her or how he quickly figures out what the robbers are doing. Marcus has been around long enough and seen enough to be an exceptional judge of character.

Bridges and Gil Birmingham are believable as long-time partners in the way they interact, like the laid-back way they good-naturedly insult each other or get on each other’s nerves like an old married couple with Albert barely tolerating Marcus who is holding onto this case for as long as he can because he knows how much he’s going to miss the work once he’s retired. He comes across as a crotchety old man, at times, but his partner feels sorry for him. We also see how they work a crime scene, each knowing what their job is and going about doing it.

They are matched by Foster and Pine who are also convincing as brothers, which translates into a good rapport between them. It shows in every scene they have together, like how easily Toby and Tanner irritate each other and how they also stick up for the other.

Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan has a real ear for realistic dialogue – the give and take between two people, like the brothers or the lawmen, that has a ring of authenticity as if we are eavesdropping on the lives of actual people. Much like he did with Sicario (2015), there’s a feeling of dread that gradually permeates the film as we know what’s coming – the inevitable conflict between the bankrobbing brothers and the Texas Rangers pursuing them – both of whom we’ve become invested in. Mackenzie does an excellent job of gradually ratcheting up the tension as he builds towards the bank job that goes bad, which always happens in these kinds of films, but not quite in the way you expect it to go down. The climactic showdown plays out much as you’d expect but then something interesting happens afterwards. Marcus retires but he still has to know why Toby and Tanner did it. The scene between him and Pine is cordial but the implied threats exchanged are not.


Hell or High Water depicts the heart of Trump’s America: run-down towns with boarded-up storefronts and graffiti on a wall that reads, “3 tours in Iraq but no bailout for people like us.” The brothers drive by a “Closing Down” sign and another one that says, “Debt Relief.” There’s the casual racism, like when they rob a bank and a customer is incredulous that they aren’t Mexican. Initially, this seems like Mackenzie is laying the political text on rather thick but in this post-U.S. election world it feels very timely. The kinds of towns shown in the film and the people that populate them are the ones that voted for Trump. We see towns populated by angry people that feel marginalized and forgotten, living in economically dead places that dot the landscape all over the country. Hell or High Water is populated by people beaten down by life, from the ornery old waitress that waits on Marcus and Alberto, to Toby’s tired and pissed off ex-wife. They’re all just trying to get by, taking it day by day.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Jason Bourne

After the critical and commercial success of The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), its star, Matt Damon, and its director, Paul Greengrass, declined to make a follow-up, feeling that they had taken the character of a psychogenic amnesiac CIA assassin Jason Bourne as far as he could go. To be fair, the film felt like a fitting conclusion but Hollywood studios are not known to stop cranking out installments for lucrative franchises and Universal Pictures gave the series’ screenwriter Tony Gilroy a shot at writing and directing his own entry in the series. The Bourne Legacy (2012) saw Jeremy Renner take over the lead as another CIA operative on the run from the United States government when his black ops program is shutdown. The film performed well enough but the general feeling was that most people wanted to see Damon reprise his role as Bourne.

Enough time had finally passed for Damon and Greengrass and they came up with a new Jason Bourne story, inspired partly by the effects of Edward Snowden’s leaking of classified information from the National Security Agency on espionage and surveillance all over the world. How would it affect the Bourne world and bring him out of self-imposed exile? Not surprisingly, the unimaginatively titled Jason Bourne (2016) was a financial success as audiences were more than happy to see the actor reprise one of his most beloved characters while leaving many critics underwhelmed.

Still haunted by all the people he killed for the CIA, Bourne (Damon) is living off the grid in Greece as a bare-knuckle brawler. Meanwhile, ex-CIA operative Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) is in Iceland hacking classified agency databases for more information on Bourne before he had his brains scrambled by Operation Treadstone. This gets the attention of CIA Cyber Ops chief Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and knowledge of the breach is quickly reported to the current director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones).

The rather ambitious Lee pushes to be put in charge of the operation to find and bring in Nicky and, if possible, Bourne while Dewey hedges his bets and brings in the Asset (Vincent Cassel), an Operation Blackbriar assassin, to take out Bourne. The rest of the film plays out in tried and true Bourne fashion with him on the run from the CIA, which takes him to various places all over the world, trying to piece together more of his past until the inevitable confrontation with a rival assassin.

Bourne and Nicky’s initial meet and greet is amidst turbulent demonstrations and civil unrest on the streets of Athens. Greengrass does an excellent job orchestrating and immersing us in this chaos as we see Bourne use it to his advantage. The director ratchets up the tension as CIA operatives close in on Bourne and Nicky, demonstrating why he’s still one of the best action directors around.

The Bourne films have always had memorable fight scenes and this one is no different as Bourne and the Asset have a bloody, knock down, drag-out fight that is a more stripped down encounter then in previous films. Jason Bourne also has a memorable chase sequence as Bourne pursues the Asset, driving an armored SWAT truck, through the streets of Las Vegas in an exciting, intense sequence.

For most of the film, Matt Damon plays the Bourne we are familiar with from the previous installments but this is bookended by the introductory scene, which gives us a self-destructive man with no direction, and a climactic scene towards the end where he confronts Dewey and you can see Bourne trying to figure out who he is and what he wants to do next. The most frustrating aspect of Jason Bourne is that Damon and Greengrass don’t delve into Bourne’s questioning side enough as they fall back on the requisite action set pieces of mayhem that is the staple of the franchise.

Tommy Lee Jones brings his trademark, no-nonsense gruffness as he plays yet another government bureaucrat frustrated by Bourne’s actions. Alicia Vikander plays a thankless role that requires very little emotion on her part, as her icy operative remains enigmatic and morally elusive. The always-reliable Vincent Cassel plays the first of Bourne’s rival assassins to have significant screen-time and something of a backstory that gives the character a personal stake in his mission to stop Bourne.

After The Bourne Ultimatum, Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon were done with the franchise with the former saying, “I discovered in my heart I didn’t have another one in me,” and the latter quoted as saying, “For me, I kind of feel the story that we set out to tell has now been told.” Over the years, the latter, motivated by fans of the films, felt it was time to revisit the character. After the commercial and critical success of Captain Phillips (2013), Greengrass was in no hurry to revisit the franchise.

In 2013, Universal Pictures executives met with Damon in the hopes that the actor would be open to another Bourne film. He was, but what clinched it was while making Elysium (2013) in Vancouver, he accidentally came across the production offices for The Bourne Legacy: “I thought I was completely at peace with the three movies…but when I saw their production offices, it hurt me in a way that surprised me.”

Damon met with Greengrass in Los Angeles and told him how much people wanted to see another Bourne film. This got the director thinking about ideas for a new one along with his longtime creative partner (and editor on several of his films) Christopher Rouse who said, “At heart, Bourne is a patriot who’s been betrayed by the institutions he believed in. Those are very identifiable feelings for people today.”

Greengrass wanted to make the new film relevant to what was going on in the world – like the others in the series – and began writing the screenplay at the end of 2014 with Rouse and input from Damon, incorporating narrative threads from Ultimatum with aspects of online privacy, including a Julian Assange-type character and a Facebook-type company set in a post-Edward Snowden world. Unlike the previous Bourne films, Greengrass had worked on they had a completed script before principal photography began.

The tricky thing about sequels is that if you deviate too far from what made the previous film(s) successful you risk alienating fans who want more of what they loved. If you stick too close to the formula you’re criticized for playing it safe. Either way, filmmakers are screwed but the best sequels build on what came before in a meaningful and satisfying way. Jason Bourne is somewhat successful in doing so.

What separates Jason Bourne from the other films in the series and makes it relevant for what is happening in the world today? For starters, cyber warfare features prominently with Heather Lee representing a new kind of foot soldier – the hacker that knows how to manipulate data in new ways that makes it tougher for people like Bourne to evade detection and achieve his goals. Social media is featured prominently as Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), the CEO and founder of Deep Dream, a Google+-type website, is in bed with the CIA, which raises all sorts of questions about privacy on the Internet. If electronic data exists online it is accessible to anyone with the skills to retrieve it.

I enjoyed slipping back into the familiar rhythms of Greengrass’ Bourne films – the rapid-fire editing, the kinetic, hand-held camerawork, and the intriguing critique of CIA surveillance techniques masquerading as an action thriller. It is this finger on the pulse of contemporary geopolitics and how it intersects with cutting edge technology that has made the Bourne films distinctive from the James Bond and Mission: Impossible franchises. I also like the personal nature of the Bourne films. He isn’t interested in saving the world from some power-hungry villain. He just wants to find out more about who he is and why he became a CIA operative, and if he puts a spanner in the works of a few of their programs then so be it.

Watching Jason Bourne makes The Bourne Legacy that much more of an unnecessary installment within the franchise both tonally and visually. Despite being written by Gilroy it never felt like it existed in the Bourne world despite the connective narrative tissue. It didn’t feel like a Bourne film but rather a simulacrum of one. Jason Bourne takes us back to this world in a way that is entertaining and is relevant to what is happening in the world today.


SOURCES

Anthony, Andrew. “Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass: ‘We’ll never say never again’” The Guardian. July 17, 2016.

Leigh, Danny. “Paul Greengrass on Matt Damon and Making it Big in Hollywood.” FT Magazine. July 21, 2016.


Manly, Lorne. “Why Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass Couldn’t Quit Jason Bourne.” The New York Times. July 12, 2016.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Doctor Strange

One of the more interesting superheroes to come out of Marvel Comics’ incredible burst or creativity during the 1960s was Doctor Strange. First appearing in Strange Tales #110, he was the brainchild of idiosyncratic artist Steve Ditko and was inspired by stories of black magic and the radio adventure serial Chandu the Magician. The comic book introduced the concept of mysticism into the Marvel Universe and, with its surrealistic imagery, anticipated the psychedelic counterculture of the latter part of the decade.

Doctor Strange (2016) is the 14th film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and continues the company’s successful formula that has repeatedly made them box office darlings. Let’s face it, with a Marvel movie you know exactly what you’re going to get and audiences take comfort in that, especially during these uncertain times. While this movie does not divert from their tried and true formula (if it ain’t broke…), they are finding new ways to present it through inspired casting and impressive-looking visuals.

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an arrogant and brilliant neurosurgeon whose life changes radically when he gets into a car accident that damages his hands, rendering him unable to perform surgeries. Benedict Cumberbatch is superb in these early scenes as an egomaniac doctor reminiscent of Hugh Laurie’s conceited medical profession on the popular television program House M.D. He’s not above humiliating a colleague (Michael Stuhlbarg) he feels is beneath him while charming an attractive surgeon (Rachel McAdams) and is very selective in the cases he takes on. Cumberbatch nails the cool and aloof nature of Strange and is not afraid to portray him initially as a conceited prick.

Devastated, Strange travels to Nepal after meeting with a paraplegic man (Benjamin Bratt) that was mysteriously healed at a place known as Kamar-Taj. He meets the enigmatic Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who, in turn, introduces him to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). She opens his eyes to a whole new world or, rather, worlds and dimensions while also altering the way he sees things, like being able to exist on the astral plane. The guided tour through the multiverse is a wonderfully trippy sequence that fuses the philosophical mumbo jumbo of The Matrix (1999) with the hallucinogenic imagery of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Strange is also schooled in the ways of the mystic arts that playfully blends aspects of the Harry Potter movies (especially objects that have a life of their own) with period martial arts movies from the 1970s. Not surprisingly, the brilliant man is a quick learner, taking the initiative and figuring out how to astral project before he’s taught how to do so.

Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former pupil of the Ancient One, and now a renegade sorcerer, has stolen pages from one of her sacred tomes, which allows him to manipulate time. He wants to draw power from the Dark Dimension and acquire eternal life by summoning the powerful Dormammu. Naturally, a reluctant Strange is enlisted to stop Kaecilius and save the world.

The most engaging Marvel movies feature inspired casting choices and, in this respect, Doctor Strange excels with the casting of Cumberbatch as Strange. He gets the self-importance of the character while also displaying fantastic comic timing with the humorous observations that are sprinkled lightly throughout the movie. With her otherworldly presence, Tilda Swinton is ideally cast as the benevolent Ancient One, an immortal being that protects the world from other dimensions but might not be as benign as she appears to be. Chiwetel Ejiofor brings a quiet dignity to Mordo whose ideology clashes with Strange’s own only for it to change when he discovers something about the Ancient One late in the movie.

Doctor Strange is the first Marvel movie to use 3D effectively as evident in an eye-popping sequence where Kaecilius and his followers chase Strange and Mordo through the streets of New York City, bending and manipulating matter so that buildings split apart and fold in on themselves, taking a similar scene in Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) to a whole other level of complexity and scale. Furthermore, in a nice touch, when Strange enters the Dark Dimension to have it out with Dormammu, the filmmakers bring Ditko’s mind-altering artwork vividly to life. Along with Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Doctor Strange is the most visually rich Marvel movie to date with a distinctive look that differentiates it from the others.


It may be odd to say and not really stretch if you think about it, but Doctor Strange is also the most intellectual effort in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – albeit in a superficial, popcorn movie kind of way, if that makes any sense. There are several scenes that involve characters arguing or expounding large chunks of dialogue about notions of time and space and the dangers of manipulating them. While the movie features the requisite battles between super-powered beings, it attempts to make them different visually from other Marvel fare. To this end, Strange fights one of Kaecilius’ followers on the astral plane while Rachel McAdams’ doctor tries to revive his physical body. I also like that the climactic battle circumvents the traditional slugfest by having our hero outwit the villain with his intellect. There’s a lot to like about Doctor Strange and I am curious to see where they go with this character.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Blade Runner

“It’s just like everything that is awful about the city, but at the same time, everything that is fascinating about it…and this, in many ways, is a futurist projection—it’s not so much escapist, it’s a projection of what life will be like in every major metropolis 40 years from now.” – Philip K. Dick, 1982

Big Brother is watching you. The Eye in the Sky. There Are Eyes Everywhere. 2016…or 2019? In this day and age, does three years matter? In 1982, however, the difference was cavernous and 2019 a lifetime away. The past has finally caught up with the present…or has the present finally caught up with the past? One of the first images shown in Blade Runner (1982): an extreme close-up of an eye – encapsulates all of this, for we are living in paranoid times. We are living in Philip K. Dick’s world. This film was based on his 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? He has become one of the most widely-adapted science fiction authors and with good reason. He crafted paranoid tales populated by damaged characters trying to figure out what it means to be human. What were once considered paranoid delusions have become tactile realities.

One of the first things that struck me about Blade Runner is its obsessive attention to detail. It is virtually impossible to take it all in upon an initial viewing. Only after watching it several times was I able to properly appreciate how fully-realized the world of Ridley Scott’s film is – a tangible future that “you can see and touch,” the director said in an interview, “it makes you a little uneasier because you feel it’s just round the corner.” This vivid world, designed by Syd Mead and Lawrence G. Paull with special effects by Douglas Trumbull, is the backdrop to a detective story. Ex-cop Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is brought out of retirement to find and kill four replicants, artificial people that are forbidden to be on Earth, but this is merely a launching pad for Scott to address a myriad of fascinating themes – predominantly, as with the novel, what it means to be human.

The first image is an establishing shot of a hellish cityscape that stretches as far as the eye can see. The next shot goes deeper into the city of Los Angeles as giant plumes of fire occasionally erupt from factories. The camera penetrates deeper into the landscape to finally locate the massive twin structures of the Tyrell buildings. Finally, the camera literally travels down to street level: neon signs, futuristic attire and lighted umbrellas are only a few of the images presented before finding Deckard reading a newspaper. This opening traces a detailed path from an ordered city on a grand scale…to the chaotic streets on an individual level.

The L.A. of Blade Runner consists of three distinct layers. The top one consists of huge, monolithic, pyramidal skyscrapers that dominate the landscape and contain the ordered offices of Tyrell. The middle layer represents middle class residential areas seen mostly as interiors like Deckard’s apartment. Finally, there is the bottom layer: crowded, garbage-strewn streets filled with the dregs of society – a pastiche of subcultures of humanity. These three layers are tied together by flying cars, elevators and a huge, hovering ad display ship that constantly advertises off-world propaganda.

The top layer is represented by Tyrell’s offices where Deckard runs the “Voight-Kampff” test on the latest replicant, Rachel (Sean Young). It takes place in an immense room populated by massive support columns that suggest strength. It is sparsely furnished with expensive accoutrements that convey wealth. The room is a mixture of Third Reich splendor and film noir style, as represented by Rachel with her angular dress and severely swept hairstyle: one half Nazi secretary, one half femme fatale. The Tyrell offices represent the pinnacle of this world’s tasteful opulence. According to Mead in an interview from 1982:

“The pyramid is very high tech compared to the rest of the movie, very sleek, a carefully arranged textural megalith. The pyramid is set in the middle of what was called ‘Hades.’ An endless plain, like the chemical plant area of New Jersey…It is the ultimate visual statement of where our society is headed in the future.”

The middle layer is a claustrophobic collection of canyons of buildings where the less fortunate live with some providing giant advertising space while a flying advertisement extols the virtues of living off-world: “The chance to begin again in the golden land of opportunity and adventure.” L.A. is presented as a city of ads: Coca-Cola, Atari and Pan-Am are surrounded by neon-like Japanese fast food joints. These ads are familiar objects that we recognize within this strange, chaotic environment. Deckard’s journey to the police station in a flying car gives us another chance to see the stunning cityscape with its collision of diversified architectural styles. As Scott said in an interview, “We’re in a city which is in a state of overkill, of snarled-up energy, where you can no longer remove a building because it costs far more than constructing one in its place.” He exemplifies this with the retro 1940s style décor of the police station. The old architecture wasn’t torn down but rather built on top of and around.

The climactic showdown between Deckard and head replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) takes place in the famous L.A. landmark, the Bradbury Building, which Scott transforms it from its once beautiful, ornately designed wrought-iron railings and cage elevators into noir nightmare – a deserted, dilapidated space strewn with garbage and debris. Deckard is chased through room after room by Batty in a harrowing sequence that resembles a horror film as the latter taunts and torments the former.

The street scenes are the most fascinating aspect of this filmic world. The first shot we get of it is the camera moving through the crowded, noisy streets to find Deckard waiting for his turn at a noodle stand. It is populated by a colorful assortment of people – punks, elderly people and so on, each with a distinctive look. He’s just one of many people in this city until he’s summoned by the cops to visit his old boss, Captain Bryant (M. Emmet Walsh).

The scene where Deckard chases renegade replicant Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) through the busy streets really shows off the bottom layer in all of its anarchic splendor. Scott orchestrates an audio/visual assault on the senses as Deckard fights his way through crowds. The director also subverts the norm of always keeping the protagonist in focus by continually obscuring Deckard with smoke, people and vehicles. The populace is a fascinating collection of ethnicities and subcultures resulting in one of the first truly multicultural future cities. The soundtrack is also a cacophony of vehicle horns, people talking and the incessant chatter of street signs that adds to the sense of urgency as he cuts through all of this confusion to find Zhora.

The L.A. of Blade Runner isn’t some sterile futureworld but a lived-in reality that feels like it existed before the film began and will continue to do so after it ends. All of this painstaking attention to detail immerses us in this universe and it grounds the characters in a tangible experience. It also transports us immediately to 2019 Los Angeles, difficult to do in a futuristic science fiction film; a lot of explanation is usually done up front so as not to confuse the audience. After a brief preamble textual scrawl, however, Scott drops us right in and expects the viewer to keep up and buy into the world he’s created.

“Looking back on what I saw, I realized that we are in an information decade. Information is the life blood, the metabolism of the modern world. And that basically people will be going in to see Blade Runner as information junkies.” – Philip K. Dick, 1982

We are living in Philip K. Dick’s future. Try making eye contact with someone on the bus or train. They are buried in their cell phone or iPod or some other electronic device. We are under constant electronic surveillance, be it cameras or remote controlled drones. The answer to what it means to be human may appear to be wildly different now than it was 34 years ago but it is quite the same. It is our species’ humanity that’s become buried beneath technology; Blade Runner was a warning that clearly was not heeded.


SOURCES

Kennedy, Harlan. “21st Century Nervous Breakdown.” Film Comment. July-August 1982.

Lee, Gwen and Doris E. Sauter. “Thinker of Antiquity.” Starlog. January 1990.


Mitchell, Blake and James Ferguson. “Syd Mead: Futurist and Production Designer Talks about Ridley Scott’s Newest SF Thriller Bladerunner.” Fantastic Films. November 1982.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Deepwater Horizon

Watching the movies that Peter Berg has directed, I wonder if he would have thrived better under the Hollywood system from the 1940s or 1950s, cranking out no-nonsense genre fare much like filmmakers Don Siegel or Robert Aldrich. His strongest efforts are the ones rooted in reality, usually based on real-life events, like Friday Night Lights (2004), and feature blue collar protagonists trying to do what is right with an emphasis on the minutia of their jobs, much like the films of one of his influences, Michael Mann.

His latest effort is the disaster drama Deepwater Horizon (2016), a dramatized depiction of the 2010 incident that involved the explosion of and subsequent fire on a drilling rig of the same name in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 workers and injured 17 others. Despite good reviews, the movie failed to connect with mainstream audiences despite the presence of popular movie star Mark Wahlberg and it was unable to make back its hefty budget with post-mortems in the press pointing to the studio’s mistakes in marketing it and the lack of broad appeal as reasons for its commercial demise.

We meet Mike Williams (Wahlberg) as he spends a morning with his family before another 21-day shift on an offshore rig. This scene is important because it humanizes the man and shows what he has to live for, which helps us care about what happens to him later. We soon meet two of his co-workers – Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) and Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) – and Berg does a fine job of showing the easy-going rapport between them while the actors use this brief amount of screen-time to flesh out their characters through casual conversations between them.

He juggles these moments with characters spouting technical jargon and inserting shots of the rig, which immerses us in the work these people do and it is done with the utmost efficient narrative economy. Even if we don’t understand what all the drilling-speak means, Berg makes sure we at least get the gist of it by also trying to convey it visually. This is Deepwater Horizon at its strongest – showing these people at work doing a job that most of us know nothing about. We see the nuts and bolts of the drilling operation and the comradery of the workers. Since this is a disaster movie, we know that this is the calm before the storm and everything will soon go to shit. As a result, there is a feeling of dread as we know it’s coming, we just don’t know when.

Jimmy is the first person to suspect that something isn’t right and confronts the powers that be in a forceful scene that sees Kurt Russell square off against John Malkovich’s shifty company man. This results in a wonderfully tense moment as Jimmy voices his concerns with Mike backing him up. For fans of good acting this scene is particularly thrilling if only to see guys like Russell and Malkovich go at it. The latter is ostensibly the villain of the movie with the screenplay laying most of the blame on the BP executive’s shoulders when in actuality there was plenty of blame to go around. This simple finger-pointing is the movie’s most glaring blemish on an otherwise impressive effort.

The decision to go ahead and drill is, not surprisingly, a pivotal one and Berg gives it the gravitas required, squeezing as much dramatic tension out of the scene as he can so that it is almost unbearable because we know what’s coming next. Sure enough, the well blows out sending tons of muddy water all through the rig at an alarming rate and this is soon followed by an explosion. The rest of Deepwater Horizon plays out as a frantic race for survival as the workers try to get everybody off the burning rig with the focus on Mike locating a badly injured Jimmy.

Mark Wahlberg excels at another everyman role in his second collaboration with Berg (they have another one on the way). With this actor, the director has found his cinematic alter ego and they bring out the best in each other. Wahlberg’s inherent likability gets us to empathize with Mike immediately. The actor also has all the technical lingo down cold and is believable as a hard-working rigger. In addition, he has excellent chemistry with Kate Hudson who plays his wife and their scenes together have a warmth to them. Perhaps the most powerful moment in the movie is Mike’s return home. He’s physically battered and is finally reunited with his family, breaking down emotionally in a surprisingly raw scene. It’s an unusual way to end the movie and an interesting choice as Berg eschews a traditional uplifting ending for a sobering one. Let’s face it, to end it any other way would have been dishonest.

At times, Deepwater Horizon feels like an angry movie, mostly during the scenes where Jimmy confronts the BP executives but then the disaster movie tropes take over and the anger simmers on the backburner until the text at the end that briefly explains the effects the explosion had on the environment. The righteous anger returns and it made me wonder what someone like Sam Fuller or Robert Aldrich could have done with this material and why, despite a few notable attempts, Berg is still not in their league but at least he’s trying. Unfortunately, Hollywood has changed so much since Fuller and Aldrich made movies.


In the hands of someone like Michael Bay there would be heavy-handed symbolism and glamor shots of heroic acts in Deepwater Horizon. Fortunately, for the most part, Berg keeps his head down and commits to telling this harrowing story as viscerally as possible. There are no superhuman feats of strength – just brave people doing the best they can in an extremely dangerous situation. It is incredible that anybody survived this disaster. There isn’t some rah-rah finale – just people grateful to be alive.