"My wife's name is Felicia, my daughter's name is Sydney, and I will see them again."I think it's safe to say that director Peter Berg has found a comfort zone and is sticking firmly with it. Despite his talents behind the camera it's difficult to overlook his frequency at making true story films based on some kind of disaster starring Mark Wahlberg, and also 'Friday Night Lights'. But with 'Lone Survivor' already setting a decent enough standard the pair not only have this disaster movie based on the massive oil rig explosion in 2010 that created a huge spill off the coast of Mexico, but later this year they are also releasing 'Patriots Day' about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
On April 20, 2010, blowout and explosion on the oil rig Deepwater Horizon irreparably damages and sinks the oil rig, releasing thousands of gallons of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico in the worst oil spill in American history. Michael Williams (Mark Wahlberg), and Caleb Holloway (Dylan O'Brien), two of more than 120 crew members on board, help rescue some of their ship mates, while his family back home deals with the fallout of the disaster.
Despite the fact that when you lay out his career it seems as if he simply goes from one true tragedy to another, and then 'Friday Night Lights' there is no denying that Peter Berg does have a real passion for the events that unfolded that day. The direction alone conveys a need to enlighten its audience on the disaster that struck these men as well as the substantial loss of life. Sometimes however that can be a slight problem, as if the movie itself is more concerned with shedding light on the incident rather than provide a deep or meaningful examination of it. At times the movie itself comes across as more of a contractual obligation about the event, as if "someone had to make a movie about it eventually so why not now?" was the kind of attitude that sparked the process.
That is not to say the film is half hearted in its execution though. As with all Berg films it is technically superb in depicting the raw energy of whatever it wants, whether it is a football game, a battlefield or in this case an explosion. As well as that, the decision to utilize mostly practical effects over large CGI set pieces gives the destruction a sense of weight. The massive set that replicates the rig is used brilliantly to bring a genuine physicality to the cataclysm as it unfolds. Aside from a few too many close-up shots that eventually feel repetitive and somewhat gimmicky in how they constantly attempt to grab the audience's attention without resorting to any other, more inventive means, overall Berg's direction is spot on.
Naturally it would seem like an essential aspect of a movie like this that the disaster itself would be captured with as much visceral energy and authentic peril as possible, and you would be right. Due to its structure 'Deepwater Horizon' feels more like a two act film than your standard three, in that we spend the first act meeting the crew and the second watching the disaster. This can be slightly jarring when it comes to the movie's overall structure and pace, but ultimately it allows Berg to devote more time to capturing the destruction in all its horrifying glory. The sound design in particular is impeccable, expertly immersing the viewer within the fiery carnage and evoking a complete sense of utter helplessness as events continue to unfold completely beyond their control. What makes that destruction feel authentic is how Berg manages to avoid making it feel gratuitous. By placing his characters right in the centre of the hellfire he injects a constant presence of danger and death to proceedings, the visuals hammer home just how life threatening this situation is rather than merely presenting it as empty spectacle. In all honestly it emphasises just how miraculous it was that anyone survived at all.
However that structure also means that we are rarely able to gain a deep understanding of who these people are. We observe them on the day of the disaster and how they dealt with it as it unfolded, but we don't feel a genuine emotional connection to them when things do go wrong other than the basic need to see them survive. It's only made worse by the fact that a good chunk of the time before the impending explosion is devoted to tech talk that sets up the series of events leading to the actual incident. While I understand the need to talk the viewer through why precisely this disaster occurred, it supports me earlier theory that the film was conceptualised more as an acknowledgement rather than an explanation. The fact that the film essentially characterises John Malkovich's character as the antagonist of the film who is inconsiderate of his workers and equipment. Instead of digging deeper into the cost of the event (on both a human and environmental scale) and scrutinizing those responsible in a more meaningful way the script just passes it off to an easily blameable villain.
The performances are generally good across the board. Wahlberg in particular is able to embody that gruff and snarky attitude that is so often associated with industrial workers. However that attitude he displays early on in the film only makes it more impactful when panic sets in later on, and the shock of what he has just witnessed starts to set in as he starts to destabilise. In fact the same could be said for all the actors who do well in establishing the outlines of a grounded character that ultimately destabilises when faced with such extreme danger. It's just a shame that none of them were allowed to dig deeper into the emotional core of that character and evoke a genuine sense of empathy towards their plight.
Berg does an excellent job capturing the disaster itself, but sadly he can't quite do the same when it comes to the impact, humanity and the tragedy.