'Deepwater Horizon' Review

Photo Credit: Summit Entertainment
3.5

Deepwater Horizon isn't just an account of the worst oil-related disaster in U.S. history, but the middle chapter of a trilogy from Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg. Their last collaboration in Lone Survivor was a true story about surviving against impossible odds and overwhelming force, and so is Deepwater Horizon in its own way, to say nothing of Wahlberg and Berg's upcoming Boston Marathon bombing drama Patriots Day in a few months.

However, the fiery terror the Deepwater Horizon brought down on its crew is something else altogether, as Berg reinforces when he finally lets the rig blow all over again.

On April 20, 2010, electrician Mike Williams went back to his job on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico for a three-week stint, along with installation manager Jimmy Harrell and rig operator Andrea Fleytas. Yet they quickly find that key tests on the rig's blowout preventer have been skipped over by managers from the rig's owner, an oil company called BP. Nonetheless, pressure from the higher ups and seemingly successful safety tests result in the rig getting turned back on, only to then result in a blowout, firestorm and oil spill of historic proportions that not everyone survived.

From the way Deepwater Horizon is advertised, it is framed to follow the same formula of Lone Survivor, as Berg once more has Wahlberg fight to survive grave true life danger during a very controversial period of history. In Lone Survivor's case, Berg focused more on the men trying to survive a firefight in Afghanistan against long odds, while staying largely apolitical on the war on terror they were sent to fight in the first place.

In the case of Deepwater Horizon, however, it is harder to gloss over BP's role in creating this deadly fight for survival. To those who wonder and fear if Berg would let BP off the hook in the rush to get to the explosions, all they need to know is that John Malkovich is the leading, Cajun accented representative of BP on the rig. That alone is a clue on how BP is taken to task for its criminal negligence, but not the only one.

Berg is hardly subtle in other ways too, like with the engine trouble of Andrea's Mustang before her departure, the eruption of a Coke can during a practice run for Mike's daughter's project on her dad's job, and the rig actually being honored as BP's safest for the seventh year in a row. For that matter, they even have a few birds strike the helicopter that brings the workers to the rig, which is sure to inspire some Sully flashbacks.

Yet even while the human error and corporate malfeasance is clear, some will surely mind that the environmental side of the tragedy isn't really touched upon, which is the other real lasting legacy of this disaster along with the larger questions about oil drilling as a whole.

Nonetheless, Berg is more interested in showing the lives and work of the men and one main woman on the Horizon, while indicting BP and counting down to the blowout. But in these kinds of movies, there's always a risk of making audiences impatient and making them wish they'd just get to the main event. With lots of jargon about the job that may sail over some heads, and some setup material that seems to be lifted more from a typical disaster movie than real life, Deepwater Horizon is a slow burn in more ways than one.

At the least, Berg has leads that can keep things afloat while passing the time. Wahlberg is certainly in his element, and one has to wonder how many takes it took him to rapidly recite a long list of rig dangers in one scene. He is aided by Kurt Russell as manager and fellow voice of reason "Mr. Jimmy" along with Jane the Virgin's Gina Rodriguez in a big screen vacation of sorts as Andrea, and Ethan Suplee as another worker overruled in his objections with tragic results.

Meanwhile, Kate Hudson is left at home to eventually fear for husband Wahlberg's life, although her real career milestone here is sharing a very brief scene with real-life stepfather Russell on screen for the first time. And as for whether Malkovich's heavily-accented interference is enjoyable or too distracting, it is hard to say.

Yet those factors and others are much easier to forget once the fateful night of April 20, 2010 begins.

The actual blowout sequence is filled with one tense build-up and showcase of destructive power after another, in what may be the best set piece Berg has ever directed. But the pyrotechnics hardly end there, as the entire second half is one long set piece of fires, collapsing debris and the so-called "well of Hell" literally looking like Hell itself.

With these kinds of disaster movie tactics, there is a very fine line between showing devastation and exploiting it, which many films don't even try to balance for the sake of blockbuster CGI mayhem. Although Deepwater Horizon is ultimately built on showing off the carnage of the oil spill, it is hardly treated like a Michael Bay style excuse for mindless fun. Truthfully, there is nothing fun about seeing the Horizon come apart around everyone, which is the whole point.

The sheer spectacle isn't meant to inspire mindless blockbuster enjoyment, but rather terrifying realism, right down to the massive fires and explosions looking more like actual pyrotechnics than CGI. Perhaps it isn't possible to recreate something like this without being somewhat exploitative, but Berg comes as close as he can.

Both the tone and tactics in bringing the fall of the Horizon to vivid and breathless life make the carnage harder to dismiss than the average explosion-heavy fare. In a way, Berg also makes it like his own version of Titanic, only without the love story or music or James Cameron.

Still, this is another tale where a seemingly unsinkable vehicle in the middle of the ocean goes down due to human hubris, greed and a lack of respect for nature, with an architect of such thoughtless decisions even getting to sail away on one of the rare lifeboats in shame. But in this one, the Hollywood style heroics and escapes are saved for the climax, and even that doesn't wash away what came before.

In the end, Deepwater Horizon may still seem like another disaster movie that mainly exists to show off visually stunning disaster. Yet it is the way Berg presents and films this disaster, and the way he treats it as something more terrifying than stunning, that winds up making it stunning anyway.

Even so, it does make just one half of the film stunning, while the earlier half is just a warm up act. There really isn't anything bad or deal breaking in this opening half, but it ultimately can't compare to what it is building up towards. And even with Wahlberg, Russell, Malkovich and Rodriguez on board the rig, Berg and his pyrotechnicians are the real stars in how they bring it down all around them.

For that, Deepwater Horizon really earns a score closer to a 6.5. However, the scale and tactics of the second half are able to round it up to a 7 on the TMN.com scale. Either way, it raises the bar for how Berg and Wahlberg will cap their true life survival trilogy in Patriots Day this holiday season.

General audiences still won't get to see how Deepwater Horizon raises that bar until Sept. 30.