The theoretical appeal for the remarkably subpar “Deepwater Horizon” is its based on true events nature, in this case the explosion of the titular oil rig off the coast of Louisiana in 2010.
Films like this are akin to a backstage pass to watch a tragedy unfold in real time and see where things went awry. People want to understand what went wrong for an event like the Deepwater Horizon explosion to occur and film is a logical medium to tackle that curiosity; it’s simpler to visualize these events rather than parse through lawsuits and transcripts from investigative committees. Yet the process is less honest this way, the necessity of compressing hours of reality into less than two hours of film and the requirement of providing a captivating narrative trumping a direct and truthful discourse of the situation. Director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg had a similar issue arise with their previous collaboration/enactment of true events “Lone Survivor,” which shed most of its nuance for a loud, dense, manipulative serving of America.
“Deepwater Horizon” is somehow worse, simply abandoning the concept of subtlety for tremendous doses of sloppy foreshadowing and outlandish, easy to identify bad guys to blame for the explosion. The villains, in this case a collection of BP representatives highlighted by John Malkovich, are portrayed as money-grubbing, out of touch snobs focused more on their important time tables than the safety of the good, hardworking folks on the rig. They’re effectively cartoon characters to shove the blame on, simple scapegoats for the audience to root against as their demands become more and more outlandish. Casting Malkovich as the biggest bad is both a tremendous and a terrible idea – brilliant for exaggerating the Snidely Whiplash nature of the character, but awful for adding layers or depth to the corporate shill. That the film is factually inaccurate with its representation is doubly worrisome; while BP deserves the lion’s share of the blame for the explosion, TransOcean (the company that owned Deepwater Horizon and is portrayed favorably in the film) and Halliburton were at fault as well. There’s no expectation for “Deepwater Horizon” to be a piece of journalism or documentary, although it remains dangerous for any film to effectively slander people just for storytelling convenience.
Truth is a secondary concern for “Deepwater Horizon”; the film’s tagline uses the line “real life heroes” to describe the people on the titular vessel. But it’s interesting though how anonymous most of the heroes are in this film, how much the movie focuses on the deeds of Wahlberg’s Mike Williams and, to a lesser degree, Deepwater Horizon manager Jimmy Harrell (played by Kurt Russell). This is not an ensemble film despite the multitude of names on the poster, meaning the multitude of people who saved others amid the chaos are left on the sidelines, memorialized during a brief run in the end credits. One character who is given a few seconds to sacrifice himself to save the others is summarily killed off with rather over-the-top Foley work above it (and it isn’t not the first time Berg has valued sound effects over verisimilitude). That Berg and company spend so much of their time throwing stones at Malkovich’s group provides even less time for the film’s heroes to show their valor.
There is, however, a fair amount of beauty covering the flaws. The strongest selling point is the wonder of the images once the Deepwater Horizon catches on fire and the crew has to navigate through the flames and chaos ensues. One shot involving Wahlberg and Gina Rodriguez (as Andrea Fleytas) alone as the world burns around is awe-inducing and deservedly memorable. “Deepwater Horizon” comes close on occasion to being a serviceable survival/disaster flick in the mold of “The Poseidon Adventure,” complete with the visuals and a couple moments of tension to keep audiences engaged. “Deepwater Horizon” is a film better served from the outside in, its aesthetics worthy enough to make it occasionally watchable.
Rubbing off the foundation though reveals all of those problems and then some. It’s a film with an overabundance of patriotism (including a rather blatant reference to the “Star-Spangled Banner”) that’s used to make the British-based oil company slightly more evil than it would be otherwise. “Deepwater Horizon” condescends to its audience, trusting visceral reactions will supersede intellectual curiosity while casting stones with little regard for how hard they’ll land.
Rating: Two out of Five Stars
Run time: 107 minutes (One hour and 47 minutes)
Target audience: People who like Mark Wahlberg and films involving true tragedies.
Take the whole family?: There’s enough blood and destruction to bother kids, so try to stick right around the PG-13 rating.
Theater or Netflix?: Even though the effects are solid, it isn’t worth paying out for the theater trip.
Any hopes for ‘Patriots Day’?: If it is anything like the last two Peter Berg/Mark Wahlberg collaborations, no. The film, about the Boston Marathon bombing from 2013, is even more recent than the last two real-life flicks they’ve done, making the wounds much fresher and the need for a light touch that much more important. Their films are blunt like anvils, which is exactly the wrong way to handle that project.
Watch this instead?: “Fruitvale Station” uses the same storytelling technique “Deepwater Horizon” has but does so with much more grace and general quality. You could also hit up “The Poseidon Adventure” for a solid brain-wasting disaster flick.
– Eric Mungenast is a Boston-based film critic who used to live in the East Valley.