The first 30 seconds of Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon perfectly defines the term you find at the beginning of the film; “inspired by true events”. Over the credits is the the actual Mike Williams – portrayed by Mark Wahlberg in the film – testifying before the committee on what happened on the Deepwater Horizon. And Williams’ Louisianan southern-drawl – which Wahlberg never had – was very evident. “Inspired but true events” – the Deepwater Horizon exploded, that part is true at least. The outright portrayal of BP Oil as the villain and the employees of Transocean, the company running the rig, as the good guys is certainly questionable. But the fact of the matter is this film is “inspired” and not a truly accurate depiction of what happened during the fire. However, everyone of the actors in this film truly felt a drive to portraying the real people they’re playing to the best they can. And Deepwater Horizon is a truly great film because of it.
The Deepwater Horizon film follows the series of events that led up to the destruction of the Deep Water Horizon drilling platform that led to the worst oil spill in history. The ‘Horizon is a massive floating drilling platform tapping a well 40 miles of the coast of Louisiana.
Every actor featured in this film is playing a real person with the focus in this crew being on Mike Williams played by Mark Wahlberg, Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell played by Kurt Russell, Andrea Fleets played by Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O’Brien played by Caleb Holloway, and Vidrine played by John Malkovich. And the biggest problem with adapting true life events comes down to one thing – life is boring. Which makes this the perfect project for The Kingdom director, Peter Berg. I cannot give Berg enough credit for his directing career. Coming from an acting background – always look out for his cameos in his film – has given Berg an eye and sense for character that naturally pushes the tension because he allows you to connect with these characters. And when the rig explodes, that explosion and the aftermath, are every bit as epic scale as the Deepwater Horizon – one of the largest boats in the world.
DeepWater Horizon is no different, it’s also the largest problem this film has. Where as the story tries to focus on six characters, well over twenty characters are featured in this crew of over one hundred. And you don’t really care about any of these people when things start coming apart this is a problem that follows the film. Berg solves this with keeping the frame always on his characters. You’re with Williams when he’s trying to keep a man calm while they’re trying to pull his pinned leg from wreckage. In a sense, William’s telling himself to keep calm. This is a man that I get because he feels real because of that self doubt that Wahlberg is able to bring out. Berg’s character-centric focus let’s him down in the chaos after the explosion and often leading to massive scenes where you really couldn’t tell what’s going on. This happens a great deal leading to a climax that works well but is let down by the fact that
Since Very Bad Things in 1998, Berg has quickly established himself as an actor’s director by taking the time in the film to bring out more that you expect from his actors. And Berg brings this out of Wahlberg’s performance as Mike Williams. Mark Wahlberg is very good at playing Mark Wahlberg. I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve seen a performance of his that was someone other than Mark Wahlberg. However, what he’s very good at doings is bringing a confidence to his roles that allows you to connect with his performance. It’s a trait that Berg, being an actor uses well in their second outing together from Lone Survivor. As Mike Williams, Wahlberg plays to his strengths as the every man. Williams is the chief electrical tech on the Deepwater Horizon. It’s through his eyes mostly that you see how money over safety is the byline on the Deepwater. There’s an honesty to Wahlberg’s performance that Berg pulls out the more he racks up the tension that keeps the back half of the movie quite tense.
Berg builds a lot of the tension early in the film with Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell played by Kurt Russell and John Malkovich’s BP executive, Vidrine. Russell comes at Jimmy with a very by-the-book rough as sandpaper feel. And it works. You feel like Jimmy is the guy that would go to bat for anyone under his command and that there wasn’t single bolt on the Deep Water Horizon he didn’t know. Jimmy’s by-the-book nature is directly clashing with deliciously slimy Vidrine, played by John Malkovich. What is great about Vidrine is that he truly believes he’s right that money trumps safety and Malkovich hammers that home with his performance. Everyone has been there at some point, being pressured by their boss to cut corners and save time and money. And Malkovich embodies this and truly takes Vidrine into an unexpected place after the rig catches fire. Russell and Malkovich’s scenes together are some of the best performances of this film with neither one giving up an inch to what their characters believe.
And the tension that Berg is building up between Vidrine and the crew is climaxed is pretty satisfactory. But, like a lot of the problems with “inspired by true events”, life is boring. And Berg has done a fantastic job of pushing the story in a way that allows you to be pulled into the story and enjoy it. The film surprised me with these performances by being able to connect with them so easily because of the fact that Berg and his actors created performances that felt real. And Kate Hudson truly embodies that with her role as Mike’s wife, Felicia. Hudson doesn’t get a lot of screen time. But when she is on screen, Berg allows her to become the reason that’s pushing Mike to get off the Deepwater Horizon alive. Berg’s had a great career showcasing strong female characters, Rosario Dawson in The Rundown, Jennifer Garner in The Kingdom. And joining Hudson in Deepwater Horizon is Gina Rodriguez’s Andrea Fleytas, command crew and pilot of the Deepwater Horizon. Rodriguez brings a lot of layers to Fleytas. She’s a woman that’s more than capable of running with the alpha males. But when she gets taken down she shows off insecurities that allows us to truly connect with her.
The Maze Runner star Dylan O’Brien seems to gravitate to films that have him running through deadly claustrophobic situations. O’Brien plays Caleb Holloway and is part of the roughneck drilling team. He’s the liable guy that carries the tension of the film extremely easily for someone so young. I can’t say enough about O’Brien. When things explode and the fire starts, he doesn’t give up any bit of screen to Wahlberg and stills pulls off the likeable every day guy.
I’ll be honest, I was full prepared to bash the crap out of this film with every trailer leading up to this film looking like propaganda to take the focus off of the oil spill and on on the people involved in trying to stop it. But the fact of the matter is, this isn’t that movie. This is a movie that shines a lot on anyone working in unsafe industry like the oil industry. And Peter Berg accomplish this by creating character moments that feel real. Speaking of those performances, Deepwater Horizon will go down as one of Wahlberg’s better performances.
Does this movie have problems? Yes, and there’s a lot – the victim of ensemble film making and directorial style choices. Was it worthy of the standing ovation it got at it’s premier at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival two weeks before? Absolutely. What Peter Berg has done is create very real characters that are easy to connect with and then push them into an incredible amount of pressure for more than half of the film and absolutely does not let it up until the final scene. The amount of tension in that final act was truly surprising to see and well worthy of 4 out of 5 stars.
Through Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg have given a great deal of respect to these real people they’ve been portraying on screen. Wahlberg has stated in interviews that he feels a great deal of pressure to get these stories right. Their next film together, Patriot’s Day, about the Boston marathon bombings. And if Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon are any indication, they’ll get that story right as well.
4 out of 5 Stars