As a director Peter Berg is an expert practitioner of what might be called controlled chaos. He exhibited that skill in his last film with Mark Wahlberg, “Lone Survivor,” and he does so again on a larger scale with this account of the 2010 offshore oil rig explosion that wreaked such ecological devastation on the Gulf Coast. But “Deepwater Horizon” provides evidence of another of Berg’s talents—an ability to choreograph characters delivering rapid-fire dialogue that pings from person to person so that viewers can catch the overall drift without having to endure long speeches. It’s something he shares with Aaron Sorkin, though Sorkin uses it among the hyper-articulate upper crust while Berg situates it among working folk whose expressions are far earthier.
Both of Berg’s strengths are in ample evidence in the disaster drama, which thunderously recounts what happened when executives from British Petroleum effectively ordered the crew to take short cuts in testing the integrity of the well before finishing the project, which was already more than a month behind schedule. As scripted by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand from news reportage, it was that misstep that led to the unraveling of the pipes and the explosion of mud, water and fire that consumed the rig and sent the workers searching for escape as rescue teams converged on the site. The last act of the movie is devoted to the catastrophe, choreographed in an orgy of solid effects shots and roars on the soundtrack as the cast scramble around purposefully in the midst of the flames and collapsing metal.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the topography of the action in this Irwin Allenesque final act of “Deepwater Horizon” is completely clear. With all the rushing about from bridge to hallway and staircase to looming crane—and then jumping through fire into the sea below—the viewer finds himself immersed in a dizzying cacophony of sight and sound. But that’s Berg’s intent: to place you in an experience that mimics, in some small degree, the one that the panicked workers found themselves in. The narrative chaos is a reflection of that which occurred on the doomed rig.
But even in this long, climactic sequence, the film doesn’t lose sight of the characters, who aren’t drawn with any great depth but are serve the function of attracting audience empathy—or, in the case of the BP honchos, opprobrium. Chief among them is Mike Williams (Wahlberg), the chief electronics technician whom we meet in a prologue with his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and young daughter Sydney (Stella Allen). But another is his friend, crew chief Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), or “Mr. Jimmy” to those who serve under him, who has a sterling safety record—in fact, there’s an interruption midway through to present him with an award in recognition of that. Unfortunately, in this case he’s up against BP executive Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), who overrules Harrell’s insistence on extra testing of the well before starting the flow. Admittedly the script emphasizes that the data weren’t definitive one way or another, but the film’s POV is clearly on the side of Williams, Harrell, and cautious rig technician Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), to whom we also introduced early on, rather than Vidrine. After all, if you wanted to portray the BP man in evenhanded terms, you would never cast Malkovich—so good at snideness and sniveling—in the part (Or give the guy a shamefaced scene when he slinks to a rescue raft, much like those James Cameron provided for the villainous types in “Titanic”?)
On the other hand, Wahlberg positively exudes ordinary-guy rectitude, while Russell, looking more grizzled and grumpy than ever, is the very model of old-fashioned competence. Whatever the actual circumstances were, it’s entirely appropriate that they should share a heroic stand toward the close, when Williams risks his own life to rescue the boss, who’s been injured while taking a shower as the blast strikes. And Williams follows that up by taking matters in hand when Fleytas, as the flames threaten to engulf them both, resists jumping from a high platform into the roiling waters and possible survival.
It should be clear from all this that “Deepwater Horizon” is not long on subtlety, in either narrative or visual terms, but it certainly works as a remarkably realistic, viscerally exciting recreation of a tragedy whose impact is still being felt. Berg’s expertise in the action-movie medium, combined with the craftsmanship of production designer Chris Seagers, cinematographer Enrique Chediak and editors Colby Parker, Jr. and Gabriel Fleming—as well as the effects team—is in constant evidence. Even Steve Jablonsky’s score make a positive contribution.
Equally important, the film manages in the midst of all the chaos not to forget the human element. That’s true of even the secondary characters, though few of them (aside from the well bridge crew, led by Ethan Suplee’s Jason Anderson) get much screen time. (Even Hudson, after her initial scenes, is reduced pretty much to the sort of reactive scenes that Laura Linney played in “Sully.”) The respectful recognition of the eleven crew members who were killed in the closing credits speaks to the filmmakers’ desire to honor their memory, though more information might have been given about the environmental impact of the disaster—which was, of course, enormous.
Together with “Lone Survivor,” “Deepwater Horizon” demonstrates that Berg and Wahlberg make a good team in telling real-life stories with a strong action element. Perhaps they can find another and go for a triple.