Dir: Peter Berg
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Kate Hudson, Dylan O’Brien, Ethan Suplee
4 STARS (out of 5)
Sometimes, movies made out of real-life disasters really do resonate well with an audience or two – particularly if they are well-timed, prescient, and handled with empathy for those involved. Earlier this year, The Finest Hours attempted to tackle a real-life disaster with empathy and gusto, but failed to convert an astonishing true story into a film that would grip audiences. As far as ‘true stories’ go, there are often liberties taken and details stretched to ensure that stories stay empathetic to their source material while beefing them up to make big screen movies. ‘True stories’ can often be fumbled by a distortion in vision or worse – you only have to look at the ill-fated United Passions of 2015, based around the story of FIFA – released at a time where several of the ‘heroes’ on display were being investigated for wide-scale corruption.
The Deepwater Horizon disaster is one that still resonates within the US oil industry to this day, and will continue to do so for a long time. The oil rig explosion, which is said to have claimed the lives of eleven workers, resulted in a colossal spill into the Gulf of Mexico – leading to lawsuits, thorough investigation and the lives of the scores of workers lucky enough to evacuate the explosion slowly being pieced back together. Some never worked in the oil industry again, and Peter Berg’s movie does a sterling job of honouring those involved in the high-profile disaster. Told mainly focusing on crewmen Mike Williams (Wahlberg) and Caleb Holloway (O’Brien), Deepwater Horizon is certainly an action movie with a difference, and there’s many reasons why.
Unlike The Finest Hours, Deepwater Horizon takes on a sense of realism from the get-go – the people we meet in the first few scenes are conventional, but not Hollywood conventional – they are normal, working people with ready wits and families they care deeply for. As a screenplay, it largely avoids clichés that other true story pieces fall into – Wahlberg, Russell and Malkovich in particular, as some of the biggest names on the cast sheet, do particularly sterling work selling us believable characters who are each flawed in certain ways – as far as this story is concerned, while there are people who make dubious decisions, everyone is on a level playing field.
The movie is intensely focused on its subject matter and, as a result, its screenplay can bog down a little – it’s refreshing that there is such realism and so little Hollywood glitz in an action epic, however, there are moments where the audience is rather left behind. When disaster strikes, however, things become suitably spectacular, with Berg’s direction clearly and ably identifying just how destructive and intense the explosion actually was – and once the movie hits this stride, it really picks up pace. It does a great job of letting us into the crew’s lives – allowing us to get to know them in enough detail to care when disaster finally strikes. Again, it’s a refreshing slant on the action movie – as this genuinely happened, the scenes are handled delicately, poised to avoid any accusation of dumbing-down or beefing-up. Deepwater Horizon could quite easily be called an ‘intelligent’ action movie – and while that in itself can be applauded, it’s for that reason that it seems to lose much of its momentum and appeal.
Deepwater Horizon is a movie that will likely appeal mainly to those who are deeply interested in what happened at the oil rig on the day of the explosion – those who want to see which actions were taken and which weren’t – and to gain a greater appreciation of the fateful day that affected so many lives. On this tack, it’s not a movie that is likely to appeal to most action movie fans. This is not a case of Die Hard, Lethal Weapon or anything featuring Steven Seagal – this is a very intense, very earnest and very serious disaster movie that does extremely well to deliver the ferocity of the explosion and to demonstrate just how devastating it was for so many people. For that reason, it may be considered bad taste for it to be seen as purely fodder for anyone looking to watch a few explosions.
That being said, the direction, script and cast cannot be faulted – while its scope is rather narrow, this is a movie that handles its real-life inspiration with such empathy while providing genuine intrigue and intensity for the audience that it has to be considered a success. It is by no means a happy film – and there are some truly insightful post-movie placards that advise just what happened once those on board Deepwater Horizon returned home – but for anyone with more than a passing interest in a genuine disaster that is afraid of Hollywood dumbing things down, I would advise not to worry, and to see this movie at all costs.