Wednesday, January 25, 2017

"Deepwater Horizon": review

2016's "Deepwater Horizon" is a retelling of the true-life 2010 oil-rig disaster off the coast of Louisiana that cost the lives of eleven men. Directed by Peter Berg ("Lone Survivor") and starring Berg regular Mark Wahlberg as Mike Williams alongside a very grizzled and "Hateful Eight"-looking Kurt Russell as rig supervisor James "Mr. Jimmy" Harrell, the movie follows a standard disaster-film formula, including the use of some painfully corny foreshadowing.

The first bit of foreshadowing comes early in the film when Williams's daughter rehearses the class presentation she's going to do about her father's job: she uses a Coke can, a metal pipette, and some honey to demonstrate how a rig pierces the rock to reach oil, then pours "mud" into the piercing pipe to prevent eruptions... except that, during the daughter's demonstration, the "mud" plug gives way and Coca Cola erupts out of the pipette. Ominous! A vision of things to come! A second bit of foreshadowing happens when Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) tries to leave home in her old, beat-up Mustang, but it breaks down, forcing her to get a lift on a motorcycle from her boyfriend. A third bit of foreshadowing happens when Mr. Jimmy sees a BP executive wearing a magenta tie. Jimmy asks the exec to take the tie off because it's bad luck: on an oil rig, a "magenta alert" indicates the worst sort of emergency. The fourth bit of foreshadowing happens not long after, when the helicopter carrying part of the Deepwater Horizon's crew suffers a bird strike. The crew is rattled, but no one jinxes anything by saying anything untoward. This slew of omens is rather heavy-handed compared to what we see in a bad-luck film like "Apollo 13," which simply went for a wedding ring lost down the drain and a crew change caused by suspicion of measles.

We don't get to the actual disaster until we're an hour into the film, which is only 107 minutes long. In the buildup to the disaster, we meet many of the crew members, as well as the film's antagonist, British Petroleum representative Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich with what I can only describe as a creepy Southern accent). Vidrine has sent home the crew that would normally pour the concrete that stabilizes a well; we also discover that crucial tests have not been performed (the rig is 43 days behind schedule and is falling apart, much to BP's consternation). Vidrine insists on moving forward with the drilling, and Mr. Jimmy reluctantly consents. These scenes are inter-cut with underwater footage of the rumbling and fracturing sea floor, building up to destruction.

When all hell finally breaks loose, the movie goes into full-on 70s disaster-film mode. Berg handles these scenes well; the special effects are quite good, although I think James Cameron did a better job of portraying maritime emergencies in "The Abyss." As other critics have noted, "Deepwater Horizon" isn't big on characterization: there are no real character arcs, and we instantly know who the good guys and the bad guys are. The movie does, however, make the moral point that one's true character reveals itself in a crisis. In some scenes, we see people in positions of authority and responsibility either fleeing the area or freezing up when they should be giving intelligent commands.

On the level of social commentary, the movie warns us that cutting corners just to turn a profit can be deadly—not a new or original message, but one that bears repeating. While I don't think that "Deepwater Horizon" should be read as a broad indictment of capitalism as a whole, the film definitely targets the corporate irresponsibility of British Petroleum, and it makes us aware of the fact that executives like Donald Vidrine ended up getting away scot-free (a title card at the end of the movie notes that Vidrine et al. had been indicted for manslaughter, but no punishment was ever levied against them).

Despite all the action, hubris, agony, and morality, the movie felt strangely subdued to me. Some critics have praised this aspect of the film by saying that Berg's approach was understated or not overly preachy. Maybe that's what I'm picking up; I don't know. It's a good, solid, watchable movie, but for some reason, I didn't feel entirely engaged by it. It could simply be that, because the film focused so much on buildup, and because we Americans are already quite familiar with the actual story of the disaster, there was just no tension or suspense: events on screen merely unfolded.

If nothing else, the movie offers the viewer a great virtual tour of an oil-drilling rig. I'll give the film a cautious thumbs-up, but if you're familiar with the history, you might experience some of the same disengagement I did.

1 comment:

Charles said...

"...people in positions of authority and responsibility either fleeing the area or freezing up when they should be giving intelligent commands."

Now why does that sound familiar? Can't quite put my finger on it....