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Sinking Into the Mire of ‘Deepwater Horizon’

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EXPLOSIVE ACTION ALONE CANNOT TELL THE TALE OF HISTORIC CATASTROPHE

by T.T. Stern-Enzi

The story is true, and should be fairly well-known to most, because it made headlines and dominated the news cycle back in April of 2010, when an explosion on the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon created the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

What director Peter Berg, known as an actor for his work in “Cop Land” and “Collateral” before taking the helm of a diverse selection of films like “Friday Night Lights,” “The Kingdom,” and “Lone Survivor,” and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand did here, in adapting an article from David Rohde and Stephanie Saul, is narrow the focus to the pivotal sequence of events that led up to the explosion and then render the chaos of the moment in all of its heat and frenzy.

What human grounding offered through the situation comes from two points of reference. We get to know Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), an efficient and hardworking crewmember on the Deepwater Horizon, watching him at home with his wife (Kate Hudson) and their young daughter, the morning that he takes off for transport to the rig. His daughter is hard at work on a school science project modeled after the Horizon, and of course, her model, complete with its shaken soda can stand-in for the oil under pressure, explodes, foreshadowing what is to come. But this interlude presents a man with everything to lose.

On the other hand, there is Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), the no-nonsense leader of the rig, the guy who immediately starts asking questions, challenging the far more business-minded bureaucrats – with Vidrine (John Malkovich) as the mustache-twirling top dog on board – who don’t know the rig or the realities of what’s going on down below. Harrell and Williams are the thankless heroes in Berg’s survival tale, but in truth “Deepwater Horizon” could (and really should) have been about much more than that.

It goes without saying that, at the time of the incident, all eyes, hearts, and minds were concentrating on the safety of the men and women trapped on the rig, fighting for their lives in what was, without a doubt, one of the most chaotic and deadly situations ever experienced outside combat. As oil pressure began to systematically decimate safety procedures and protocols, releasing gases and oil that needed only the tiniest of sparks to trigger countless explosions, there was no time to think about anything other than staying one step ahead of the next burst, which could come from anywhere.

And generally speaking, Berg is the perfect director to stage this kind of action. In “The Kingdom” and “Lone Survivor,” he proved capable and sure-handed in linking the frenzied peril to a character, someone who would be the audience stand-in, our eyes and ears in the moment. One of the key differences with those films, though, was the idea that the heroes were taking decisive action against something or someone. In “Deepwater Horizon,” Williams and Harrell work feverishly to save lives, but they are doing so against, to a large extent, their own human interests. As workers on the rig, they helped to create this catastrophe and the destructive impact it had on the environment, which the film never discusses.

The movie doesn’t want us to think about this reality. It believes that if we focus on trying to stay alive, on the altruistic concern of saving our colleagues in harm’s way, on making sure that Williams gets back to his beautiful wife and daughter, then everything will be all right.

That’s a rather shallow ploy, utilized everyday during the political season, to misdirect people from the real questions and challenges of the issues. We call it spin, and it sadly is a fact of life.

But “Deepwater Horizon” could have been more than yet another example of the spin cycle in full effect. The film could have broken up the presentation of the fiery action with a sobering examination of the consequences. That level and type of depth would have recognized the dogged effort to unearth real truths. What Berg has wrought here could just as easily have come from Michael Bay, using sets and effects from “The Transformers” franchise. At least then, we could have argued for the efficient reallocation of resources.

DEEPWATER HORIZON [PG-13] D+