Deepwater Horizon, the latest from director, Peter Berg, is a film that does so many things so well that you’d expect it to be a great movie, but once it’s over it’s shocking how little of it really stays with you.
This could, theoretically, apply to practically all of Peter Berg’s films. He does things that make his films constantly tip-toe around being interesting and thoughtful or complex, but his storytelling and filmmaking choices only serve to undercut those elements. Personally, I don’t mind Very Bad Things or The Rundown, but that critique goes towards his run of films inspired by true events, something he doesn’t really plan on stopping anytime soon, given his next project due in late December is Patriots Day, which is based on the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
As I said, a lot of Deepwater Horizon, based on the infamous oil rig disaster from 2010, is admittedly very well done. When everyone is on the oil rig and the stage is set for the big buildup, the anticipation is genuinely suspenseful, and when the moment hits, it grabs you for pretty much the rest of the film’s runtime. When it needs to be intense, it is really intense. The VFX work is impressive, Steve Jablonsky’s droning score is unnerving and occasionally dreamlike, and the cast is straight up A+, and it’s not just that the performances are great, but Berg and his casting director have an eye for using people that feels completely un-Hollywood and natural, as if you could bump into any of the film’s characters at a bar or at the mall.
The problem with the film though is there isn’t much to it beyond the big setpiece. The biggest sin of Deepwater Horizon is that it completely fails in providing any sort of context or deeper exploration to the incident and the consequences that came out of it. The film saves some of the biggest revelations out of that disaster for quick mentions in some text just before the credits roll. The only thing that comes close to the film digging into the event is a tired and purely surface-level exercise of blue collar vs white collar nonsense that lacks in any nuance or specificity. You could theoretically take out the name “Deepwater Horizon,” change it to something completely different and the movie could just pass as just another sub-par disaster melodrama.
Now, there isn’t nothing inherently wrong with taking a real life event and simply making a thrill ride out of it. I mean, it’s exploitative, for sure, but you have to own it as exploitation to make it work. Peter Berg is essentially presenting us with a near-schlocky, bare bones thrill ride, but frames each shot with a weird sense of gravitas and importance that never rings true because there is nothing in the material to support that. Peter Berg is using his cinematic canvas to basically pat himself on the back despite not doing or saying anything particularly interesting or meaningful about the event and the people who were caught in the middle of it. And I would argue that Peter Berg using the real people who lived through such horror as a safety net for any critiques toward his filmmaking shortcomings to be much more harmful and offensive than it would be if he simply admitted that he just wants to make a schlocky disaster movie.
Granted, most of these thoughts won’t necessarily come to you as you watch the film. It’s propulsive enough to make each moment work, one right after the other. A lot of that does come from the cast. Mark Wahlberg is a solid everyman, though he can pretty much do this kind of performance in his sleep at this point, especially during all the scenes where he makes painfully generic banter with his wife and daughter. Gina Rodriguez is an absolute breakout, managing not to bring a level of charisma that easily matches the sausage fest that is the work environment on the oil rig, but also expressing a range of emotions so vivid and strong, that it could’ve easily come off as overdoing it had she not sold every second of it. A vast supporting cast including, but not limited to, Kurt Russell, Douglas Griffin, Dylan O’Brien, Brad Leland, and Ethan Suplee do a more than serviceable job with little material, relying more on their ability to sell their rapport than anything else. Though, many of them do unfortunately become a bit indistinguishable as soon as everyone gets covered in mud and oil. The only performance that didn’t really work was John Malkovich, who plays a BP rep, delivering a bizarre and hammy performance that is not even close to being on the same wavelength as the rest of the cast. It’s fun to watch, but it only goes to show that Berg is not interested in nuance when it comes to the clash between the oil rig workers and the higher-ups who work for BP.
Deepwater Horizon isn’t a terrible film by any stretch, but it is painfully unambitious with its material. It takes a catastrophic event and makes it seem like a mere footnote, not in terms of the scale that’s presented, but in terms of its ramifications and consequences (and lack thereof). It is watchable, and entertaining in the most surface-level way possible for a majority of the runtime. However, unlike Peter Berg, I’m not satisfied in how this story was presented, if he really wants to pay tribute to the people who were stuck in that horrible situation, he should do more than just the bare minimum. It is nothing more than a mediocre spectacle thanklessly held together by a strong cast, and frankly, the people who lost their lives that day deserved better. 45/100