Though it may not have been intended as such, Deepwater Horizon is a second installment of sorts in a de facto trilogy from director Peter Berg and his apparent muse, Mark Wahlberg. Following Lone Survivor and preceding Patriots’ Day, this is the second of three films that, while not linked in any conventional storytelling sense, bring a personal, human touch and face to recent events of great historical import. Of the three, Deepwater Horizon plumbs the murkiest depths to find heroism. No one forgets the bravery of American soldiers in Afghanistan or the Boston police during the Marathon bombing, but faced with the name and retelling of one of the biggest environmental disasters in American history, you’d be forgiven for thinking of suffocating pelicans and soiled coastlines long before you think of the in-the-moment human cost of the disaster.
Berg is predisposed to this sort of challenge, and gifted at rising to it. Wahlberg helms an excellent ensemble cast as Mike Williams, the chief electrical technician on board the doomed rig, which, after a blowout and series of explosions on board, spilled millions of gallons of oil in to the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. He is in many ways a quintessential Berg-ian character -- competent, humble, filled to the brim with aw-shucksiness. He is on the Deepwater to get a job done and get back to his wife Felicia, played by the long-lost Kate Hudson, and his adoring daughter.
Wahlberg is no Kyle Chandler/Coach Eric Taylor in this sense. He doesn’t melt in to his role exactly, a vibe egged on further by the decision to cast Hudson as his wife. Both feel distinctly like movie stars -- Mark freakin’ Wahlberg and Kate freakin’ Hudson -- playing the parts of ordinary people much of the time, but as Wahlberg mixes in with the rest of the crew on board and, eventually, navigates us through the burning, sinking wreckage of the vessel, that feeling wanes.
That’s because the rest of the cast, with one noteworthy exception, brings plenty of authenticity to the table, and because the disaster on board the Deepwater takes on such urgency. Gina Rodriguez of Jane the Virgin fame is one of the biggest reasons why as one of the final few holdouts trying to escape Deepwater before it blows. But even the biggest star on board, Kurt Russell, helps make up for Wahlberg’s … well … Wahlberg-iness with a down-to-Earth turn as the bellowing, sure-handed captain of the vessel “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell.
The race to escape the Deepwater is pulsating. Wahlberg cuts a smaller figure than your usual action star, and that makes him an all the more effective steward as he tries to flee the vessel. That smaller figure seems to make the challenge of getting out alive that much more imposing, and this needs to be an imposing challenge all on its own. There is time before and after to ponder the role of fossil fuels in this disaster -- and by extension all our lives -- but what makes this a film with mass appeal is that race against the clock -- the kind with such desperation that two people would leap in to an open, fiery ocean in the middle of the night just to gain distance from the wreckage.
Berg doesn’t let the cast or even his action sequences do all of the work here. The surprising intrigue of Deepwater Horizon is its fixation on the actual machinery and interpersonal machinations that wound up betraying those on board. For example, I had no idea that the Deepwater rig was a free-floating vessel not actually bolted to the ocean floor. I didn’t really know that most of the workers on board were actually contractors for BP rather than actual employees of the multinational corporation. I certainly didn’t expect to be so wrapped up in everything it took to keep this oil-pumping village going. That, I suppose, is an effective way to make a disaster everyone in the theater knows is coming still catch you off guard, and to get you fully invested in the fates of all on board when it strikes.
Berg hammers home the point that oil extraction of this kind, regardless of whether it’s good in the grand scheme, is a spectacular human achievement. Every cranking gear on the rig has this way of sucking you in, of tricking you in to marveling at our mastery of technology. Even a latte-sipping liberal like myself can appreciate that much. And even a red-blooded climate-change denier can understand that we never really tame nature, especially when humanity itself remains so flawed.
When oil starts spewing uncontrollably -- at one point quite literally dousing the cartoonishly arrogant BP company man played by John Malkovich in the face -- you are allowed a moment of cheap satisfaction. But it is only a moment, and it is a largely misdirected one, especially because so much of what went wrong out there seems to be invested in this single character. Here is someone so directly culpable for this disaster getting physically harmed by the very thing he has so greedily chased. (Malkovich’s performance, by the way, is the one exception I referred to above. It just didn’t work for me, and not just because his Cajun accent was painful.)
The rest of the film’s events dwarf that petty emotion, and not just with acts of courage set against the backdrop of gasket-blowing pressure and enormous fireballs, though I probably haven’t talked enough about how great an action film this is.
The truth is that none of the crew should have been out there -- no matter that their greed isn’t as naked as that of their corporate masters. Those who did escape the Deepwater were lucky to do so, saved to some degree by the same hubris that brought them out there in the first place.