Peter Berg, the director of Deepwater Horizon, seems to structure his new movie around a relatively simple goal: To plunge viewers into the middle of chaos, and then have his grime-covered heroes pull them out of it. The film is a meticulous reconstruction of the largest environmental disaster in American history, sparked when an offshore drilling rig exploded 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana in 2010. Berg’s lack of subtlety makes for a gripping experience—Deepwater Horizon is a loud, fiery mess that immerses viewers in every catastrophic detail.
Throughout his erratic career, Berg has veered between outright comedy (Very Bad Things, The Rundown), stirring real-life drama (Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom), and big-budget foolishness (Hancock, Battleship). He’s now settled into a very specific groove: recreating recent life-and-death disasters, whether Deepwater Horizon, a failed military operation in Afghanistan (2013’s Lone Survivor), or the Boston Marathon bombing (the upcoming Patriots Day). All three films star Mark Wahlberg, and focus squarely on the ordinary people working on the ground to set things right. Deepwater Horizon is an intense and involving story, but it’s biggest flaw is perhaps being too steadfast in its mission: Viewers will leave with a fine sense of how it felt to be on that blazing rig, but they’ll still have plenty of questions about how and why things went so wrong.
The screenplay, by Berg’s frequent collaborator Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, is happy to point one finger straight at BP, the oil company that contracted the Deepwater Horizon to drill 60 miles off the coast of Louisiana. John Malkovich plays the chief villain, a sinuous engineer named Donald Vidrine (with an accent that’s either Cajun or Transylvanian) who urges the platform’s employees to drill on despite their safety concerns. But despite Malkovich’s wild flourishes of enunciation, Vidrine is nothing more than a plot cipher, an evil nonentity standing in for the evils of an entire industry.
It’s difficult to cut through the barked jargon even before the disaster occurs, but the main details come through: Vidrine and his BP cronies are trying to cut corners against the cautious advice of “Mr. Jimmy,” (Kurt Russell), the tough supervisor of the Deepwater Horizon. As experienced workers like Mike Williams (Wahlberg), Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), and Caleb Holloway (Dylan O’Brien) flit around and tut at the mounting shambles of the drilling project, Berg liberally cuts to the ocean floor, which is pouring out dangerous bubbles of methane that eventually led to the rig bursting into flames.
Despite many shots like these, and others that take viewers inside the drill pipe (which is building up with mud and oil and god knows what else), the movie doesn’t offer much insight about the specific causes of the explosion. Deepwater Horizon’s ensemble is consistently shouting technical details, but Berg doesn’t seem to intend for it to all be understood. Thus, viewers are left with a sense that there’s something deeper and systemic worth analyzing; Deepwater Horizon was not a freak accident, after all, but the culmination of years of deregulation in the oil industry.
The director is more concerned with the cacophony of fire and flying shrapnel that comes next, and after a slow, steady build, Deepwater Horizon delivers, throwing the audience into pandemonium for its last hour. Wahlberg is the main focus, grunting and grimacing around the platform as it burns, rescuing survivors and generally acting like a captain going down with his ship (even though his role appears to be something more like middle management). It’s here that Berg’s devotion to telling the stories of real-life heroes, who snapped into action during a crisis, comes through.
Berg’s best film, 2004’s Friday Night Lights, was elegiac and muted, thriving in the small moments of a West Texas town’s love for high-school football. Now, he’s best understood as a more refined Michael Bay for the way his bombastic movies steer clear of that director’s most obvious, often jingoistic, clichés. Deepwater Horizon works overall because its subject matter is different enough—and its cast interesting enough—to distinguish it from a typical war movie. That distinction matters less in its latter half, when the oil platform essentially turns into a war zone, but this is a film at least that goes in knowing what it wants to do and executes accordingly. It’s just a shame it didn’t aim a little higher.