From last week’s ungainly biopic Snowden, which played like a PowerPoint presentation about its own protagonist, we come to Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon, an exciting and emotionally resonant action movie that still honors the heroism and sacrifice of its real-life subjects. The former film tells and tells and tells how you to think and feel, while the latter film shows you a visceral, man-made horror with such power and grace and guts that your emotional resistance gets overwhelmed.
Of course, the shock is that the sleepy Snowden comes from verified auteur Oliver Stone, while the electrifying Deepwater Horizon is directed by the guy who made Battleship and Hancock (to be fair, I never saw Berg’s fact-based 2013 film Lone Survivor). Deepwater Horizon was also co-written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, who previously collaborated with Berg on 2007’s The Kingdom, a risible, issues-oriented action drama starring Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner.
In other words, Deepwater Horizon wasn’t exactly on the top of anyone’s mental queue, but it’s one of the most riveting and substantial blockbusters of the year so far, sitting right below Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. (Buried lede: Cinema is dead.) Berg manages to serve a diverse set of masters here, paying tribute to the facts without betraying his duties as an entertainer, and laying the blame on money-grubbing executives (mostly personified by an ooze-dripping John Malkovich) without turning the film into a seminar.
Mark Wahlberg stars as Mike Williams, a worker on the Deepwater Horizon, an offshore oil rig that exploded in 2010 due to lax safety oversight by BP. Kurt Russell provides sturdy support as the gruffly noble rig manager Jimmy Harrell, while Kate Hudson serves the underdeveloped part of Mike’s wife Felicia Williams well enough. Thankfully, the de rigueur family stuff is played with a relatively light touch, and Berg is more concerned with building old-fashioned tension by any means necessary than with lingering on functional characters.
There’s a scene near the beginning where Wahlberg’s Mike boards the Deepwater Horizon singing The O’Jays’ classic “For the Love of Money,” and as the song briefly gets passed around the rig from man to man, there’s a fleeting impression that the film could burst into an all-out musical. That would have been inappropriate within the context, but Deepwater Horizon unfurls with such effortless grace and immediacy, even as it shifts into a full-blown disaster movie, that it was at least momentarily plausible.
Since Deepwater Horizon focuses on the experience of being aboard the oil rig as it transformed into a shrapnel-spitting inferno, the devastating after-effects of the explosion (more than 200 million gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico) get relegated to an end-credits footnote. But thoughtful and penetrating films about the environmental impacts of the spill already exist, in the form of documentaries like The Big Fix and The Great Invisible. Instead of telling us something that we already know, Berg shows us something that we’ve never seen.