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Deepwater Horizon
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Rig Of Fire"
3 stars

Anyone choosing to make a movie that recreates a real-life disaster has to face two enormous and largely inescapable hurdles even before they shoot a single frame of film—the fact that practically every potential audience member will know the outcome of the events being depicted before they buy a ticket and the possibility that by trying to translate a horrifying occurrence—one that might have included actual loss of life in its unfolding—into cinematic terms, there is a risk of somehow trivializing those events by reducing them to the level of a cheeseball fictional disaster epic like “The Towering Inferno” or “Earthquake.” These are not insurmountable problems, to be sure, and the makers of films like “Apollo 13,” “Titanic” and “United 93” certainly managed to create works that worked as cinema without reducing them to the usual array of cliches. On the other hand, a film like “The Hindenburg” made such a botch of translating the events surrounding its central event—most infamously by combing actual footage of the real-life crash with hoked-up special effects involving the actors meeting or escaping their grisly fates—that the whole thing came across as crassly exploitative. “Deepwater Horizon,” a film offering viewers the chance to witness the events of April 20, 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon, an offshore oil rig employed by British Petroleum, exploded, sending the entire thing erupting into a fireball that cost 11 workers their lives and kicked off what would prove to be America’s single worst ecological disaster, is certainly an ambitious film in terms of the detail in which it recreates the destruction but when it comes to the other stuff—such as understanding of how such a thing could be allowed to happen and the people whose lives were put into jeopardy as a result—it too often comes up frustratingly short

As is typical for films of this type, the first half or so is concerned with introducing us to the key characters and setting up some of the important plot details that will eventually come into play once everything goes sideways. Our nominal hero is Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), an ordinary chief electronics technician on the rig who has just left his wife (Kate Hudson) and adorable moppet of a daughter back on the shore to spend the next 20 days at sea. There is avuncular crew manager Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), who admonishes visiting BP executives for trying to rush the rig into beginning to pull up oil without doing the necessary safety tests. There is Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), who is one of those charged with steering the unmoored rig and who wants to get back home to fix up her car. There is Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), one of the BP executives who is upset that the rig is 43 days behind schedule and who wants them to start pumping instead of running what he feels are unnecessary safety tests. And, of course, at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, we get to see that all is not as tranquil as it seems with the early and undetected rumblings of what will eventually become a cataclysmic disaster.

When that disaster finally does kick in, it is indeed scary and spectacular, especially how it builds in such a way that a good number of the 126 people on the rig are not even fully aware of the extent of the situation until the entire thing is engulfed in flame and spewing oil. While Vidrine cowers in the face of the disaster that he helped to create with his cost-cutting and determination to push ahead at all costs, the others desperately try to cut off the pipe spewing the oil but when those efforts prove to be futile, they are forced to abandon the rig entirely. As we follow Mike through the ruins of the rig, he aids a nearly blinded Harrell, helps free another worker whose leg has been pinned down by a large piece of metal and is finally forced to the top of the collapsing rig with Andrea in order to jump into the flaming water in a last-ditch effort at survival. In the end, 11 workers would lose their lives in the accident and while that is a devastating loss of life, especially in regards to something that might well have been prevented, the fact that only 11 died under the circumstances is borderline miraculous.

As a technical exercise, “Deepwater Horizon” is not without interest—director Peter Berg (whose credits include “The Rundown,” “Friday Night Lights” and “Lone Survivor”) shows that his ability to stage elaborate action setpieces has improved greatly since the debacle that was “Battleship.” However, once you get beyond that aspect, “Deepwater Horizon” comes across as more than a little thin. Take films in a similar vein to this one like “Apollo 13” and “Titanic”—they managed to mine their respective subject matters for compelling narratives, they gave us characters that were so well-developed that we immediately became invested in whether they lived or died and they figured out how to present the more technical material about what happened with their respective disasters so that when they occurred, viewers had a better idea of what was going on and could easily following on as things inexorably developed. Here, everything is introduced in the most perfunctory manner imaginable with everything reduced to its most basic elements—Mike is stalwart and straightforward, Harrell is furious at the risks that he is being forced to take, Vidrine seems to be going out of his way to court disaster and the rig itself seems to be only half-functioning even before the eruption. Instead, we get several scenes that offer up ham-fisted premonitions of what is about to happen—Mike’s daughter replicates the rig with a can of soda for a class project that unexpectedly begins to spew pop, a bird hits the window of the helicopter taking workers to the rig, a BP executive wears a tie with the same color as the warning signal for a gas leak and Harrell is presented with an award for his long-running safety record. In the second half, Berg recreates the chaos that ensued but since we have not been given any sort of explanation about what eventually happened (to be fair, the workers had no explanation either), most viewers may find themselves confused as to what is going on or what the workers are trying to do to stop the disaster from spreading.

It is too bad that there isn’t more of a human element on display here because the cast assembled here certainly would have been capable of providing such a thing. Wahlberg (who collaborated with Berg on “Lone Survivor” and an upcoming film about the Boston Marathon bombing) is good and convincing as the ordinary Joe forced into a series of extraordinary situations. Kurt Russell, practically an institution at this point, is one of those rare actors who can make anything they say sound authoritative and that certainly helps him here since the script doesn’t have much for him to do except to crab about the lack of tests on the pipe. Gina Rodriguez is winning as the rig technician and so is Kate Hudson as Mike’s worried wife—her role may not consist of much more than talking on a phone while looking concerned but she pulls it off more effectively than Laura Linney did with a similar part in “Sully.” The only cheesy performance to be had comes from Malkovich, who goes positively reptilian as the BP weasel and also offers up an accent so bizarre that it almost needs to be heard to be believed.

In the end, “Deepwater Horizon” is a reasonably well-made film that suffers from the inescapable fact that it doesn’t really seem to be sure of what it wants to do. Anyone looking for a blow-by-blow examination of what actually happened that fateful night can find clearer and more informative takes elsewhere. Anyone looking for an illustration of the enormous environmental cost of the disaster and, by extension, man’s reliance on fossil fuels, will be disappointed to discover that the film avoids discussing the eventual impact save for a couple of title cards before the end credits. Anyone looking for a rabble-rousing drama about the potential price of corporate greed will find themselves curiously unmoved when the whole thing is said and done. There is indeed a powerful and angry film to be made about the Deepwater Horizon disaster but “Deepwater Horizon,” despite the good cast and impressive technical achievements, is not it.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=27977&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/30/16 10:21:45
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/06/18 Louise Tense and exciting, but could have done without the Hollywood schmaltz re: wife and family. 4 stars
2/12/17 morris campbell tense true story 4 stars
2/05/17 mr.mike Despite the technobabble and frenzied directing, it works. 4 stars
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  30-Sep-2016 (PG-13)
  DVD: 10-Jan-2017


  DVD: 10-Jan-2017

Directed by
  J.C. Chandor

Written by
  Matthew Michael Carnahan
  Matthew Sand

  Mark Wahlberg

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