I still think of Peter Berg as being a half-decent 90s actor, as opposed to his new guise as a director of macho, artillery-heavy blockbusters, simply because I haven’t bothered to check out many of the films he’s made. Those that I have seen – Hancock, Very Bad Things – just didn’t seem to work, despite Berg’s attempts to try something a little different within two genres that seemed quite tired at the time. I might start paying a tiny bit more attention, though, having now seen 2016’s disaster movie Deepwater Horizon, which tells of the 2010 oil rig explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
There are faults with this film, for sure. The screenplay largely neglects to cover the aftermath, including most obviously the massive environmental impact of the oil spill, save for one scene in which an oil-covered bird runs amok on a ship’s bridge, smashing into windows and machinery; there’s a brief mention of the long clean-up process at the end, which to date has apparently cost BP more than $54 billion, and very little regarding the lawsuits and criminal cases that ensued in the wake of the disaster. The focus here is almost entirely on the men and women who worked on Deepwater Horizon at the time of the accident, with emphasis on Mark Wahlberg’s electronics technician Mike, Kurt Russell’s supervisor Jimmy, John Malkovich’s BP manager Donald and navigation officer Andrea (Gina Rodriguez). Wahlberg’s a good fit for the lead role: here he’s playing a skilled employee and all round likeable guy who acts heroically in the face of extreme danger and just wants to get home to his wife and daughter. Russell is great to watch, as usual, and has a good part here. Malkovich overacts in order to establish quickly that he’s the villain of the piece. Rodriguez doesn’t get as many lines as the men, but is OK.
There are maddening cliches here: Kate Hudson is handed one of those thankless wife-left-dangling-at-the-end-of-the-phone (well, Skype call) roles, hundreds of miles away from the action when the power on the rig suddenly cuts out; later, as huge fires burn on the rig, a lone, defiant American flag billows in the wind before it is subsumed by the flames; and there’s absolutely no lingering on the trauma experienced by any of the survivors – Mike’s is quickly dealt with in about ten seconds flat before a typical (but understandable) syrupy reunion with his family to round things off. However, despite all of that I was engrossed in the story and the action; the actual mechanics of the rig and cause of the explosion are explained in enough detail that even I – a man who shrieks and runs away at the prospect of a bit of DIY – understood what had happened. And I can’t imagine how difficult it is to recreate this huge, terrifying accident, with all the fires raging and explosions taking place and huge pieces of metal falling in such a cramped space, but Berg and his effects team carry it off with aplomb. So this is another disaster film in which the disaster itself is the real star, but Berg manages to choreograph the chaos so that it’s easy to follow (yet still utterly terrifying), and, most importantly of all, he shows respect towards the 11 men who died on board the rig. (***½)