Director: Peter Berg
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell
3 (out of 5) Globes
The fire is fantastic in “Deepwater Horizon.” The climax is a veritable Disney World pyrotechnics spectacular — a 20-minute flurry of flames springing up hither and thither, metal structures creakily collapsing and giant bolts and screw nuts shooting about like crossfire. But we’re not meant to be wowed by the effects. It’s “Titanic” but with fire — destruction as elegy, complete with a cowardly exec who sneaks onto a lifeboat ahead of those he endangered. (Though there’s no star-crossed romance, there is a near-naked Kurt Russell.) The director Peter Berg does not make subtle films, and if his latest is a blunt weapon, it’s one that’s meant to make us fiery with anger.
The subject is, of course, the 2010 BP oil rig explosion and its attendant environmental disaster — the worst in American history. The movie was produced by lefty issues-leaning Participant Media (of “An Inconvenient Truth,” etc.), but it has little hand-wringing about our reliance on oil, our short-sighted plundering of natural resources or how we should turn to renewable energy and electric cars. Berg tends to make movies about right-ish issues, or at least issues that have been claimed by the right: films like “Lone Survivor” or “Battleship,” which wear their love for the military on their sleeve. And so his latest is a lefty salvo in hawk’s clothing. It’s all about good guys vs. bad guys, and the bad guys — British Petroleum, of course — are so bad that they’re played by John Malkovich with a Southern twang.
The good guys are the hard-working folks aboard the rig, like Mark Wahlberg, in furtively smart lug mode. He plays Mike Williams, our audience surrogate, who goes off for a routine gig aboard the remote, crotchety Deepwater, calmly pointing out the untold unaddressed issues plaguing his workspace to a fleet of disinterested, patronizing suits. Mike has a goodly wife, played by Kate Hudson, but she’s not a stock woman-at-home, nor are they a bland every-couple. They’re flirty in the bedroom and over long-distance Skype sessions, and Berg’s movie takes enough interest in them that once all hell finally breaks loose, it’s not merely about impressive effects and scampering bodies.
That makes all the difference. We don’t know every single one of the ornery crew — we mostly see ball-busting, including one of them (Ethan Supplee) taunting a colleague by calling him a “Democrat” — but the lengthy, patient set-up allows us to see them collectively as victims of heartless corporate wankery, with bosses right out of a Michael Bay movie shouting things like, “You don’t have the authority!” It gives the best shout-downs to Kurt Russell, as the crew-cutted, mustachioed rig manager known as “Mr. Jimmy,” who charges back at Malkovich’s arrogant stooge that, “You rent our rig; we live on it.” (The actor also delivers a helluva “Sonofabitch!”) At all times, the movie treats us like children, at one point explaining how oil rigs work via a child’s science project.
There’s pleasure to be had in being treated like children, though, or as moviegoers who need to get worked up about real life calamities. As issue movies become increasingly rarified, it’s easier to see both their craft and their importance as cultural influencers. Berg knows what he’s doing, and what he’s doing here is more defensible than usual. In “Lone Survivor,” he fetishized his doomed soldiers, treating them like no less than four Mel Gibson Jesuses. Here, he turns his heroes’ plight into a tragic melee of pure chaos, grounded by the pain it feels for those trying (and sometimes failing) to make it out alive. Even when he baldly rips a move from Paul Greengrass’ “Captain Phillips,” having the steely Wahlberg collapse into traumatized confusing and tears, he does it with such sincerity that the effect is nearly the same. Call it simple, and it is, but simple’s not a cuss word.