It's a bit weird to admit, but the "ripped-from-the-headlines true story" has almost become a genre itself. We've seen a significant rise in these movies over the last few years, and I don't see it stopping any time soon. Captain Phillips, Zero Dark Thirty, Sully, Lone Survivor, American Sniper- if there's a tragic story or modern hero on the news, you can almost guarantee that a film adaptation isn't far behind. And while most Hollywood trends like this tend to be annoying or frustrating, I'm actually okay with this one. I haven't enjoyed all of them (Sully is actually my least favorite by a mile), but there's a pulsating, thrilling topicality that runs through each of these movies that I simply adore. When the material is put in the hands of a skilled filmmaker like Paul Greengrass or Kathryn Bigelow, the end result is usually pretty spectacular.
If there was a final member of the triumvirate of modern true story action directors, it'd probably be Peter Berg. After bombing with the mega-budget Battleship, Berg turned to Lone Survivor, a smaller-scale war movie that was pretty much the opposite of his previous film. Gritty, brutal, and tragic, Survivor connected with audiences in a unique way. Berg had found his niche, and he's fully embracing it at this point. In addition to the Boston Marathon bombing movie, Patriots Day, coming out later this year, Berg is bringing the biggest oil disaster of all time to the big screen with Deepwater Horizon. The 2010 oil spill that killed 11 workers and pumped millions of gallons into the Gulf of Mexico was one of those disasters that pretty much everyone knew about, and it was something that was a huge news story at the time. Deepwater Horizon doesn't give us much more insight into the topic, but it's a perfectly fine tribute to the men who lost their lives on that tragic day. Intermittently thrilling, but a tad bit disappointing when compared to Berg's previous work, Deepwater Horizon is a grounded, competent action movie that could have been a bit more with a few improvements.
On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in a fiery ball of flames, killing 11 crew members and creating a disaster of unprecedented proportions. Berg's film is the story of what caused the downfall of the rig, the mistakes made by BP and the other companies involved. But more importantly than that, it's the story of what happened when all hell broke loose, and the men who emerged as regular, everyday heroes. One of those heroes is Mike Williams (Wahlberg), an electrician with a loving wife (Kate Hudson) and a daughter who adores him. Along with the rig's leader, Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell), Mike is one of the most vital people on the Deepwater Horizon, and when a greedy BP executive (John Malkovich) insists that there's no maintenance to be done, Williams is always the first to stand up for the crew. When things go south on the rig, Mike, Jimmy, and the brave workers (the supporting cast includes Gina Rodriguez and Dylan O'Brien) will have to use their wit and strength to overcome a tragedy of epic proportions.
Berg is a gifted filmmaker with an eye for humanity and grittiness, and I find myself admiring Lone Survivor more and more each year. He brings many of those same elements to Deepwater Horizon, but there's just something missing. There's a sense of urgency that is lacking, and the film is never as thrilling, thought-provoking, or horrifying as it wants to be. It certainly has its intense moments, and the climatic disaster sequence is a fiery feat of special effects, accompanied by lots of screaming, plenty of explosions, and a few truly jaw-dropping images. But it takes a long time to get to that point, hitting so many of the beats of the fact-based drama along the way. The introduction of the family, meeting the crew members, seeing the first signs of trouble- it's all there, and it feels like Berg and the cast are just going through the motions at a certain point. It's efficient, but not effective, which is a problem for a film like this.
The first half of Deepwater Horizon is also oddly bogged down in oil rig technicalities and back-room debates, which is both a nice twist and a major problem. Most movies wouldn't even bother showing you the actual mechanics of what went wrong, and the fact that Berg does attempt to provide some scientific and technical context to the disaster is a good idea on paper. But after watching this film, you'll probably understand why most films just skip to the show-stopping action scenes. The middle section of Deepwater Horizon is a real slog, and there's an inordinate amount of time spent on constant debates over what to do about each problem on the rig. None of that proves to be very interesting from a character perspective, and the fact that the movie never seems all that intent on dealing with the disaster's aftermath makes the middle section feel like a moot point. The lawsuits that followed BP and Transocean after April 20 are handled mostly in the end credits scroll, which makes me wonder why Berg tried to form so much of the movie around it. There's no satisfying conclusion to that arc, so why bother at all?
So after a relatively basic first act and a tedious middle section, the final act must come around to save the movie, right? Yeah, not quite. It's handsomely made, but dramatically inert, devoid of any real sense of tension. With the climax of Deepwater Horizon, Berg doesn't intend to thrill you or create a sense of dread- he's out to overwhelm the audience, showing them the sheer scope and magnitude of this catastrophe. It's a unique approach that is certainly different from what I expected, and I have to imagine that the sequence would look great in IMAX. Berg's eye for intensity never quite comes through, but his sense of scale and tragedy is phenomenal. He plays Deepwater Horizon more like a procedural than a thriller, although I've never been one to consider those two to be separate things. He nails an authentic sense of realism and horror, but can't quite get you to grip your armrest in fear. It's what makes this a merely decent film instead of a great one.
The performances certainly do elevate the proceedings, and I liked the main group of actors quite a bit in this film. Wahlberg is in his element as usual, and his ability to play both a convincing hero and everyman will always be impressive. I do question the choice to open the film with a voice recording of the real Mike Williams (who has a thick Southern accent), but Wahlberg still manages to play him to perfection. A scene late in the film depicting Williams' breakdown in a hotel room will probably go down as one of the best of the year. Kurt Russell is also terrific as always, bringing his charming gruffness to Mr. Jimmy, a character that I think everyone will really connect with in some way. And finally, John Malkovich is clearly having a good time playing the devilishly slimy BP executive, hamming it up and playing the villain role with gusto and energy. He's a standout in this film.
Deepwater Horizon never manages to be the perfect blend of thriller and procedural that it's setting out to be, but as a gruesome, realistic reenactment of a defining current event, Berg's latest gets the job done. It's not outstanding, but it is workmanlike, hard-hitting, and undeniably well-made. It may sound like I'm being overly harsh on this film, which I think can be chalked up to a simple case of expectation vs. reality. This is still a good piece of filmmaking from Berg, and a movie that I enjoyed. Wahlberg, Russell, and Malkovich are stellar, Berg handles the material in a rough, sober manner, and the special effects are very impressive. I'm hoping that Patriots Day can bring back more of the gripping intensity that made Lone Survivor a standout, but there's no denying that Deepwater Horizon is another admirable film from a director with an eye for capturing the defining events of this decade.
THE FINAL GRADE: B- (6.7/10)
Images courtesy of Lionsgate