Deepwater Horizon is a film that concludes on a sobering note about how demonstrable corporate greed can take real human lives.
Peter Berg’s original transition from acting to directing was characterized by “fun”-minded films like Very Bad Things and The Rundown. But other than outliers like the messy genre exercises Hancock and Battleship, he’s primarily become a steward of narratives inspired by true American stories. As such, his personal aesthetic has settled into an exaggerated sort of docudrama approach. He gets in close, uses handheld camera and pushes his movies into a realm of heightened realism that becomes comical due to a lack of restraint. In Deepwater Horizon, Berg appears his most confident and balanced, but he delivers a film so awash in bluntly-executed tropes as to do a disservice to the real events he seeks to honor.
Based on the true story of the 2010 BP oil spill, Deepwater Horizon is a film that concludes on a sobering note about how demonstrable corporate greed can take real human lives. Given the events that unfold, it’s a legitimate artistic statement to make, but the way the story itself is presented works directly at odds with those noble intentions. Despite exhibiting shades of Paul Greengrass, Berg’s depiction of the Deepwater Horizon crew has more in common with The Abyss than anything else. We’re introduced to sturdy, likable everymen as dedicated to their jobs on this remote oil rigger as they are to each other. Due to a series of compromises and pressures from their higher-ups, certain measures are downright ignored, leading to this catastrophic tragedy.
The three principals, Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) and Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), are all given ample time to endear themselves to the audience, even if the material they’re working from is a little thin. In terms of believability, their performances rate only a few notches above Bruce Willis arguing with NASA about drills in Armageddon, but each cast member brings a sincerity and conviction to their respective roles that is engrossing on its own. Honestly, the workplace banter, easy in-jokes and relatable interactions of the film’s first half feel like some of the best work Berg has done since the “Friday Night Lights” television series. But there’s a tone-deafness that intrudes on even the warmest moments.
Deepwater Horizon is billed like a disaster movie, but the foreshadowing portent of the early scenes has more in common with a haunted house picture. Every few moments, there’s a hidden-in-plain-sight harbinger of the dangers we know to be lurking around the corner, while our protagonists wander about their day unaware of their impending fate. There’s something horrifying and biblical about the way the ocean floor and the burbling mud are presented, as if the Earth is displeased with being pillaged. Somehow, that depiction is also divorced from any liberal environmental concerns. That feels like a stylistic accident, but it’s some of the most gripping imagery in the entire film.
The thing is, that’s not an objectively bad way to frame this kind of story. John Malkovich has the right idea, hamming it up as BP company man Donald Vidrine. Malkovich is the most watchable he’s been in years, indulging in a memorable Louisiana creole accent that makes him seem cartoonishly villainous. It’s not quite Jon Voight in Anaconda, but that’s certainly not from a lack of trying. Vidrine is the embodiment of sloppy, money-minded suits forcing men willing to actually get their hands dirty to make decisions that cost people their lives. It’s such a capital-M Movie way of depicting this age-old masculine schism between men who know what they’re doing and the wine-sipping delicates who are constantly getting in their way.
Again, all of this would be fine if Berg wanted to lean into the classical movie trappings this iteration of the narrative is so well-suited for. Deepwater Horizon, for its first hour or so, is a gripping suspense piece with lived-in characters, chugging along towards a foregone climax. Hell, once the mud and oil begins to spew forth from the Earth, the movie feels more like a horror excursion than your average disaster spectacle. It’s a fascinating way to translate a harrowing event in a way audiences have been psychologically conditioned by Hollywood to actually process. It’s almost a braver approach to dramatizing the truth because it acknowledges that you’re watching a $150 million blockbuster and not a documentary.
But after this inventive spin meets its apex, the film settles for a run-of-the-mill onslaught of fire and debris, moving away from the striking visuals to the usual shaky, near-incomprehensible mess masquerading as cinéma vérité. By the time the dust clears and the survivors get home, a coda outlining the disgusting true-life outcome of the entire debacle inches towards the final director credit. The film shows us the real people these actors have portrayed and shows images of the real lives that were lost. This rings hollow, though—the rest of the film hypes up the viewer for the kind of satisfactory conclusion that movies like this typically provide.
In a fictional movie, Vidrine would get his ordained comeuppance and die for his transgressions. That’s just how these stories work. In real life, Vidrine got off scot-free. It feels disingenuous to fire up an audience using crude storytelling techniques, only to sweep the rug out from under them, leaving them with the disappointing reminder of how the world really works. Perhaps that was Berg’s intention, but it feels like the rare instance of a Hollywood movie being handicapped by a downer real-world ending.