Peter Berg is no stranger to technically complex action, having helmed big-budget blockbusters like Hancock and Battleship, but he generally stumbles in the human drama department, making a more grounded and serious flick like his overwrought Americans-in-Arabia pic The Kingdom a bit of a bust. He tweaked his own formula to improved results in the gripping Lone Survivor, but it’s his latest picture where he finally calibrates both action and drama smartly enough that they can coexist in harrowing harmony.
Deepwater Horizon, Berg’s anxiety-inducing account of the 2010 BP oil spill that dumped millions of gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico following a colossal explosion aboard the titular free-floating rig, offers a detailed look at rig operations and the experiences of the people who work them. The movie becomes an ode to technology and human ingenuity and the ways in which the two must complement each other.
This allows Berg to immerse us in the specifics of offshore drilling as a practice and a job, taking us on the journey from the mainland across the water to the rig and then allowing us to be a fly on the wall during jargon-filled conversations among rig workers where the mood vacillates between coolly casual and awfully tense. The camaraderie between employees occasionally flirts with feeling forced, but mostly it’s a convincing look at how all these people interact as their work duties intersect.
Berg knows that we know where this is all headed, so he’s able to observe the friendly banter and chats about general operations with an ironic eye, all while captivating us with the complexities of the work. We get to see first-hand how many different people doing different things in different areas of the massive rig are required to keep the whole thing running, which affords us an appreciation of the entire enterprise.
The human drama in these early moments is pretty simple, but kept afloat by a strong cast. When chief supervisor Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell) receives a safety award mere moments before everything goes south, it should be a moment to roll one’s eyes, except Russell is so good as the man in charge that he offsets the heavy-handed nature of the cruel coincidence. Electronics technician and main protagonist Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) shares a few Skype video calls with his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson), mainly to reinforce his personal stakes before disaster strikes, and the exchanges work well enough since Wahlberg and Hudson have decent chemistry together.
These tension-building moments that establish life on the rig under average, everyday circumstances work best as a whole. The collective mix of emotions and minutiae lays a strong foundation for the dramatic action that is soon to come because it appeals to both heart and mind. In this setup portion of the picture, Berg doesn’t leave any room (or he isn’t given any by screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand) for soppy sentimentality, so we get just enough understanding of how the rig is run and who is doing the running.
That includes a meeting with BP bigwig Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), who grimly redefines the corporate slimeball stereotype. For years now, Malkovich has straddled the line between unique character actor and grating caricature, but his oily villain here, complete with thick accent, is a delicious reminder of the greatness Malkovich is capable of. Having a person to hate and blame the impending disaster on further fortifies and also convolutes the human element in play, especially when Malkovich’s smarmy grin is replaced by a shell-shocked stare later in the story.
This brings us to the movie’s entire reason for existing, the actual catastrophe that occurred on the Deepwater Horizon following an attempt to drill a tricky well. Berg skillfully increases the level of danger as the drilling procedure goes awry, first frighteningly but fixably, then terrifyingly as all hell breaks loose. At this point, we have an investment in the people and a knowledge of the rig layout, so when Berg hits us hard and quick with the breadth of the disaster, the action arrives with an immense impact from all angles.
By the time everything is exploding and debris is zipping through the air in every direction, it’s clear that Berg has given us the right amount of information to comprehend the complexities of the horror and the challenges of surviving it, while also surprising us with the sheer scale of the mayhem and the different problems the various workers are facing. Everyone is separated into small groups, some engulfed in flames, others locked away inside a control room where even the decision to call in a mayday intensifies the conflict.
The entire disaster portion of the movie is colossal and technically astonishing. First-rate effects, including an overwhelming amount of pyrotechnics, are combined with brilliant sound design to place us in the middle of the molten maelstrom, creating a cinematic experience that is truly unique when compared to any other flashy disaster movie.
Sure, Berg previously established that he was proficient with directing pricey set pieces, but his work here is a giant leap forward for the filmmaker. He executes the fiery sequences with an incredible immediacy and places us so close to the action that the flames are practically lapping at your faces. Most importantly, of course, is that he actually makes the human drama as compelling as the imagery. These are good, honest, hard-working people facing immeasurable odds and dealing with a situation that would seem impossible to even comprehend without the visual and aural aid of a movie like this.
There’s a specificity to Deepwater Horizon that bolsters the emotional impact. The engaging cast and the effort to immerse us in the mechanics and sciences of offshore drilling make for a particularly convincing and seemingly authentic experience that informs and inspires in equal measure.
Berg has long since been a jingoistic action-first director, a sort of toned-down, slightly less manic Michael Bay (whose style he epically aped in Battleship), but Lone Survivor somewhat turned the tide and now Deepwater Horizon has put him on a new course entirely. He’s really captured the human element here on honest terms, filtering it through a glimpse of hell that trades the whiz-bang excitement of cinematic action for a more terrifying assault on the senses.
When Wahlberg’s Mike has to make a daring escape by leaping into the water from several stories up on the rig, we jump with him, tethered together all the way. What would have seemed merely a bravura stunt in the hands of earlier Berg is now a genuinely gut-churning plunge that wants to stir us and shake us, much less interested in being rousing entertainment than it is in making us care– not about the action, but the outcome.