Tuesday, November 1, 2016

"Deepwater Horizon" Review: Real World Tragedy and Hollywood Collide In This Biopic Based On True Events

It takes a skilled filmmaker to interpret a real life event that destroyed lives as well as our natural environment and turn it into what can be viewed as mostly escapist entertainment. At the most we hope that it depicts the events that transpired in a respectful manner and refrain from over indulgent tendencies such as unnecessary pyrotechnics and/or turning the characters into melodramatic stereotypes. Director Peter Berg has navigated those treacherous waters with surprisingly little trouble in his new film Deepwater Horizon, a retelling of those fateful last moments that the oil drilling rig had off the coast of Louisiana in 2010. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:   
Projector Type: 2D Digital
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime:  1 hr 39 min
Studio: Lionsgate
Release Date: September 29, 2016

Loves: Kurt Russell
Likes: Most of Peter Berg's films, Biopics about disasters
Neutral: The over abundance of explosions that just seemed excessive
Hates: Nothing
Peter Berg's best film?: I am still partial to his first, Very Bad Things.

Mark Wahlberg defies expectations and delivers one of his more compelling performances

The disaster surrounding the free floating Transocean oil drilling rig Deepwater Horizon is considered the largest oil spill in the history of the United States. After suffering a blowout of gargantuan proportions that resulted in a massive explosion that claimed the lives of over 11 crew members, the under water well gushed oil into the Gulf of Mexico for over 85 days before it was permanently capped off. Most of the blame for the tragedy was laid at the feet of BP (British Petroleum) who were taken to court in a number of class action lawsuits, but the real story was what actually happened that fateful day of April the 20th in 2010 that led to such a catastrophic event.

Having a filmmaker like Peter Berg at the helm of a project like Deepwater Horizon, a film depicting a great tragedy filled with human moments is something that generally causes more cautious pessimism than any sort of optimism as his filmography is littered with inconsistencies ranging from fun (The Rundown) to a mess (Hancock) to downright bad (Battleship). So it is with great humility that I say Deepwater Horizon is quite possibly the best film Peter Berg has ever made. That of course comes with a few asterisks in regards to the fact that most of what makes the film so compelling is the story itself but Berg does deserve most of the credit here as he has delivered an often times very moving film that despite indulging in a few too many explosions (more on that in a bit) and stars the equally inconsistent Mark Wahlberg pays tribute to the survivors and victims in just about as respectful a way as could be expected while also keeping the audience on the edge of their seat.

Just like the character he portrays, Kurt Russell is the backbone of the entire cast.

They say imitation is the deepest form of flattery and James Cameron should feel extremely flattered by how so many filmmakers take a page out of his Titanic book when it comes to how to inform your audience with a ton of exposition about the logistics of how a particular set of events transpired without ever making it seem like some sort of extended history lesson. While Berg isn't the first to use this same method he is definitely one of the better imitators out there as he masterfully introduces the audience to how things were "supposed" to function in case of an emergency which in turn allows us to focus more on the human element than the technical one. Some may roll their eyes at such an obvious attempt to spell things out in this manner but there is no denying how effective it is in practice.

This approach also allows us to meet our main characters in a timely and efficient manner as well as a ton of supporting characters of whom are surprisingly devoid of the usual stereotypes associated with having to characterize such a large roster as this. Our main characters consist of a trio of individuals including head technician and overall handyman Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), the man in charge Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) and the helmsman Andrea Flaeytas (Gina Rodriguez). We get introduced to them as they return to the oil rig after some shore leave which also serves as a way to shepard the audience along with them that further illustrates the many functions of having to work and live on an oil rig. The strong cast also helps in regards to getting us investing in these characters without much lead in which only strengthens our attachment to them later on.

Without the usual warnings, the crew of the Deepwater Horizon never saw what was coming.

Aside from an assortment of colorful characters who operate the rig we also meet what the film unabashedly labels as the bad guys in the form of some BP corporate types who have come to find out why Jimmy is 45 days over on his due date. The main figure we meet out of this group is Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) who seems to be more interested in getting the operation under way than executing dozens of safety checks. Although it would have been very easy to turn him into a cartoonish villain we see that he has good reason to think the way he does making it difficult to lay all the blame on him despite knowing in hindsight that he clearly made the wrong call. The same can be said for everyone involved though, it was more of a trickle down level of blame than just one person which the film illustrates to us perfectly (although Vidrine definitely gets the villain edit by the end).

Just about the only real criticism that can be laid at the film is its over reliance on pyrotechnics in its last half. While their certainly was a number of explosions and out of control fires that happened that day for sure it is difficult to justify the excessive amount used here. The initial moments leading up to the blowout is appropriately tense and even the few moments after the blowout are certainly some of the most pulse pounding scenes in any film released this year, but when Berg decides to go full Michael Bay after that it does suck a lot of that tension out of the film and does a slight disservice to all the realism portrayed in its opening moments. By no means is this a deal breaker but it does feel out of place and akin to if James Cameron felt the need to have fireballs shooting out of the Titanic as it sank just for the sake of having explosions.

Once the blow out occurs it is a domino effect of tragedy.

That being said, Deepwater Horizon remains a compelling and often times moving experience from beginning to end. Even though we didn't get to know all of the characters as intimately as we would have liked and despite there being one too many explosions near the end, none of that changes the raw emotional impact left behind when viewing the family photographs during the end credits of those who lost their lives that day. While it can be labeled as being overly emotionally manipulative at times and even pandering to a certain degree, it earns the right by that point to let us have that emotional release we so desperately needed after experiencing what these brave souls were forced to confront and endure.  


Peter Berg's Deepwater Horizon is the poster child for how to tackle sensitive material without coming off as preachy or otherwise manipulative towards any one party's point of view. The cast is top notch with Mark Wahlberg turning in one of of his better and more subtle performances and Kurt Russell once again proving that his is the unsung hero of just about any project he is a part of. With a taught script mixed with Berg's undeniable visual flair, the film delivers a film going experience that is just as likely to entertain as it is to pay tribute to those who lost their lives on that fateful day in September of 2010.


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