The sight of a billowing American flag with the blazing inferno of a burning oil rig in the background is a powerful image and its use in the disaster film Deepwater Horizon evokes… it’s hard to say what. Is it representative of the disastrous ecological consequences of America’s dependence upon oil? Is it damning capitalism’s disregard for the well-being of the working man? Is it simply a striking tableau? That last possibility seems like the most likely scenario; as he did with his last outing, 2013’s Afghan War actioner, Lone Survivor, with Deepwater Horizon director Peter Berg attempts take all the politics out of highly politicized events, choosing to focus only upon the men and, in the case of Deepwater Horizon, sole woman, involved with those events as they happened, staying removed for the greater implications of the respective misadventures. Unfortunately, choosing to ignore the broader ramifications of the 2010 oil rig explosion does not leave much story to tell and what’s there is not particularly compelling. While the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe was certainly a harrowing and dramatic experience for those involved, this retelling of that experience is overly straightforward and ultimately drama-less.
The film opens with scenes of domestic bliss in which Deepwater Horizon chief electronics technician Mike Williams (Berg’s Lone Survivor star, Mark Wahlberg), preps his daughter for a class presentation on drilling for oil, demonstrating on a soda can, which, in one of a number of on-the-nose moments of foreshadowing, explodes and sprays sticky liquid all over the room. Soon, Mike is getting dropped off at the local heliport by wife Felicia (Kate Hudson in a classic “fretting wife” role), and departing for the titular oilrig with his co-workers, Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell, and Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez). The most interesting scenes of the film concern the day-to-day workings on Deepwater Horizon, a massive modern marvel, with an astounding number of moving parts. Berg makes the most of his opportunities to show off the film’s thoroughly conceived and realized sets before they are inevitably blown up and does a superb job of establishing the workaday world of Deepwater Horizon.
Things get less interesting once the plot kicks in. Present on the rig are the villains of the piece, a passel of BP stuffed shirts led by Don Vidrine (Jon Malkovich, doing an insane Cajun accent), who insists upon bypassing safety procedures in order to begin the harvesting of precious crude (it is carefully established that our heroes are the people who “explore” for the oil, not collect it). The disaster is ultimately blamed upon this small group of a-holes rather than a systematic failure (admittedly, safety-disregarding oilmen are not hard to villainize), and when the blowout finally happens the movie is sure to afford its heroes many “told you so” moments in which to shame the fatcats. Once the accident has happened, Deepwater Horizon becomes a disaster film in the mold of The Poseidon Adventure except without the challenges. Yes, the set is on fire, but none of the heroes are presented with a difficult choice, nor do they ever make a wrong decision. While this may be how things went down in actuality, it does not make for very interesting viewing.
That the destruction of Deepwater Horizon was the greatest ecological disaster in U.S. history is only touched upon, briefly, in the film’s written epilogue. It seems like Berg, the writers, and producers did not want to risk turning off viewers by getting “message-y,” an understandable tack that yields a mostly uninteresting movie. Weirdly, Deepwater Horizon might have benefitted by framing the disaster with the subsequent hearings in the style of the (also mediocre) Sully. The film needs a position other than “these oil guys are good, those oil guys are bad.” That position is too easy, and, in reality, not the issue presented by the catastrophe of Deepwater Horizon.
Director: Peter Berg
Writer: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Matthew Sand
Cinematographer: Enrique Chediak
Editor: Colby Parker, Jr., Gabriel Fleming
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O’Brien, Kate Hudson