FILM REVIEW – DEEPWATER HORIZON. With Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Kate Hudson. Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand. Directed by Peter Berg. Rated PG-13 for prolonged intense disaster sequences and related disturbing images, and brief strong language. 107 minutes.
DEEPWATER HORIZON is at least the third movie this year based on a true story about people fighting to survive a serious accident, following “The Finest Hours” and the current “Sully.” They pretty much follow the same dramatic structure, and “Deepwater Horizon” fails at nearly every point. Unless you’re going just to see an oil rig explode, this is likely to disappoint.
The movie takes its title from a British Petroleum oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Due to what were apparently lax safety standards, an explosion occurred in April 2010. It resulted in a number of deaths and led to the worst oil spill in American history. It was both a tragedy and a disaster.
To dramatize this story for the screen requires two things. First we need characters whom we get to know and in whose fates we becomes invested. In “Sully,” it’s primarily the pilot of the plane who chose to land his plane in the Hudson River when his engines failed. In the case of “The Finest Hours” it’s both the Coast Guard crew risking their lives off the coast of Massachusetts in the midst of a blizzard, and the surviving people aboard a ship that has been torn apart and sinking. In both cases, we’re pulling for lives to be saved because we’ve gotten to know at least some of them.
Here, we barely know anyone. Mark Wahlberg is a heroic crew member whose chief character trait seems to be wanting to get a dinosaur relic for his young daughter for show and tell. Kurt Russell, in the film’s best performance, is the crusty safety supervisor. John Malkovich is one of the cardboard villains. If he had a moustache he could twirl it while putting company profits before people and the environment.
All three films cast an actress in the thankless role of the woman back home waiting to hear if her husband makes it. In the earlier films, we get some backstory about their relationship so we know what she has at stake beyond the obvious not wanting her husband to die. Here, Kate Hudson is wasted in a role that’s barely defined at all.
The other thing such a film needs is that the accident/rescue has to be both dramatic and comprehensible. You may never have been to sea, but “The Finest Hours” gives us an understanding of what both crews are facing if they’re going to make it. The same with “Sully,” which–whatever its flaws in making the National Transportation Safety Board the heavy–takes us through both what happened to the plane, and what alternatives the pilot faces with only moments to make a decision.
Unless you read the news stories at the time, you’d be hard-pressed to say what went wrong on the rig. That the company cut corners is made clear, but what exactly happened? It has something to do with the pumping system, or maybe more than one, or one that has too much pressure or something. What’s worse, the directing and editing gives us no sense of the space. It’s never clear where characters are in relation to each other and, often, in relation to the action. It’s extremely difficult if not impossible to connect the dots and follow what’s happening except that it’s bad and it involves fire.
As a result, “Deepwater Horizon” is a less than engaging film which never makes it quite clear where it’s going or why this story is being told in this way. The real-life workers who were injured or killed that day deserved better.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.