Director: Peter Berg
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Kate Hudson
Is there a better cinematic conductor of controlled chaos out there today? Peter Berg is Paul Greengrass on steroids. Both of them nurse an obsessive affinity for history-altering, cataclysmic American events (and disasters). Like Greengrass, Berg is an incredibly committed action filmmaker with the heart of an investigative journalist.
But rather than a Greengrass-like visual disorientation, Berg operates on a more fundamental altitude of explosiveness. Lone Survivor, his previous film, was an incredibly complex tale of modern warfare to shoot, no pun intended.
Yet, despite at least a dozen characters and a million moments to merge, Berg wielded a symphony-like grasp over his craft. His latest, Deepwater Horizon, is an extension of this anarchic language. Both these seemingly loud films assault not our senses, but their own inhabitants with unerring accuracy. Every crunch hurts us, only because it hurts them.
Based on the worst oilrig disaster in U.S. history, this film is a meticulous recreation of the week leading up to the explosions. It begins, a bit ominously, with a sex scene – the kind that serves as an everything-to-lose introduction to our protagonist (Mark Wahlberg, as chief engineer Mike Williams).
His exceptionally loving wife (Kate Hudson) and abnormally mature little girl (Stella Allen; a scene-stealer) set the calm before the storm, as it transpires so often in most survival movies (Cast Away, Captain Phillips).
We’re given a fleeting glimpse of just one other family, which automatically suggests that this character will turn into a key figure during the “well-from-hell” disaster. Oddly, this isn’t Kurt Russell, who plays something of the project head and grizzled old veteran (pardon the uninformed terminology).
They fly to the titular rig in the middle of nowhere, but not before a bird hits their helicopter. This is a foreboding moment, not just in tone but in method too; Berg’s penchant for immersive sound mixing begins here. And continues through, devising an uncomfortably perceptive soundscape.
Soon enough, the intense physicality of genre stars like Wahlberg and Russell meets the measured villainy of John Malkovich – a BP (British Petroleum) liaison, or in other words, a greedy suit looking to cut costs. A lot of technical jargon is thrown around for a while. But one gets the gist that Malkovich, in the quest to impress his London bosses, has compromised the well’s concrete foundation. And Russell isn’t happy. Tests are done. Results are misunderstood. Thus begins the rapid descent into all-around destruction.
The rig itself is a testosterone-ridden playground of sorts, with enough of nervous cross-sectional banter going to hint at abrupt termination. You know it’s coming. You know the faces meant to fade. There’s also the podgy presence of Ethan Suplee, an actor who has made a career out of being caught up in adrenaline-fueled all-starrers (Unstoppable, Remember the Titans, Wolf of Wall Street). He plays a noble role here.
Berg builds and builds, until we – and the pressure in various important-sounding valves – can’t take it anymore. This soon becomes the Titanic sinking in fast-forward, relentlessly fiery flames. Each minor disaster is constructed out of an astounding amount of carefully synchronized shots stitched together. At times, the sounds fade and rise, like a television set dramatically controlling the volume buttons on its own remote.
Each minor disaster is constructed out of an astounding amount of carefully synchronized shots stitched together. At times, the sounds fade and rise, like a television set dramatically controlling the volume buttons on its own remote.
Each one of the men are battered and thrown around with a keen awareness of tension and momentum and suspense in the larger scheme of things. Somehow, they all add up, and even morph into a strangely moving adventure; smaller survival thrillers within the film soar and culminate. There is no way any of it ends well, because it never did back in 2010, but there’s still enough to sustain our emotional investment – and then leave us vaguely elated at the prospect of mainstream heroism.
George Miller imagined and created the ballet-level lunacy of Mad Max: Fury Road from scratch, but Berg – who consistently operates within the shackles of real-life happenings – manufactures an arguably more challenging universe. An ordinary one, full of extraordinary seismic incidents.
I went in expecting to see something of a giant oil-spill and lofty images of natural ruin. But to watch a man-made one, and then find it difficult to follow and fathom the sequence of domino-effect offshoots, without even drifting into fantastical concoctions, is almost humbling. Everything starts to explode, and suddenly everyone feels so puny; all those verbose discussions were utterly futile, like life.
There’s no showboating, just a plain, clinical and violent dissection of a distant catastrophe.
There’s no showboating, just a plain, clinical and violent dissection of a distant catastrophe. Yet, Deepwater Horizon is intimate, too, when you least expect it. When all the noise stops, the silence is affecting in a way only tragedy can understand. And that, in essence, is what will eventually separate Peter Berg from his peers.