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.