Deepwater Horizon is not an in-depth look at one of the worst oil spills in U.S. history; it’s a disaster picture that drapes itself in the American flag as it runs around the explosions. I thought it was better when it examined the causes of the accident and British Petroleum’s (BP) fault in it.

You’ve seen the trailers for this film, because you’ve probably also seen the one for Lone Survivor and (assuming you see this one) Patriot’s Day. All three are Peter Berg-directed portrayals of politically charged topics (terrorism, war, oil-drilling) examined through a non-political lens with a tint of Americana, all featuring Mark Wahlberg. I imagine Berg sitting in his office watching CNN for the latest breaking news, catching an interesting story on TV and calling Mark Wahlberg to pitch another way to cover a controversial event without pissing anybody off.

The pitch this time? Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) is a chief technician on the titular oil rig, a job description that the movie never explains, except to say he nows how to fix things. We get the scene with the wife (Kate Hudson, more on her later) and child setting up that he’s a good Southern family man that has to go away for some business. Namely, he has to make sure the rig is working correctly.

He’s assisted by Jimmy Farrell (Kurt Russell) who is well-respected for his insistence on crew safety. But of course there’s clashes with senior BP officers Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) and others about how much regulation they really need. If you think big businessmen are a bunch of corner cutting weasels willing to sacrifice lives for profits, this will be music to your ears.

Farrell wants the pipe underwater to be sealed with more cement so it doesn’t burst, but Vidrine doesn’t want BP to have to spend extra money. Williams is the scrappy underling that speaks out in support of Farrell, but the higher-ups decide to ignore the good advice and test out their structure. I’m sure they regretted causing a deadly oil spill that contaminated the environment, but outside of a mopey shot of Vidrine at the end, the movie doesn’t go into the legal and ethical consequences of the disaster.

What’s more important are the explosions. There are a lot of them here. A few years ago, Berg directed Battleship, a movie that Michael Bay (The King of Cinematic Combustibles) could’ve done on his day off. Here, Berg seems to be obsessed with out-Baying the infamous Transformers director himself. 

There’s not just a big blow-up followed by a few small ones; there’s explosions on explosions followed by an extra side of explosions. In fact the entire plot after the accident is driven by the fact that people are running away from them.

There are really no stakes or conflict here, other than people try to escape the rig as it’s on fire. That makes half of a compelling disaster movie. The other half of it involves creating personal dilemmas for characters that the big event helps resolve. Irwin Allen was a master of this in the 70s, frequently throwing in personal dilemmas (Gene Hackman as a reverend who eventually doubts God) or even simple marital issues (the fighting couple stuck on a sinking ship) to make you want to see these people survive.

Other than the Williams character (whose backstory is short and light on conflict), Berg does this with nobody, so everybody becomes dispensable figures getting thrown around by a sinking rig.

Berg has an excellent touch with actors, even if they’re not written well-enough. Wahlberg and Russell have an easy camaraderie that makes them convincing as hard-earned men while Malkovich is appropriately slimy. Gina Rodriguez and Kate Hudson do what they can with underwritten roles, but their characters become afterthoughts. Rodriguez is introduced as a spunky hard-worker with an attitude, but quickly devolves into a mess incapable of making her own decisions. Hudson meanwhile is stuck as the Crying Wife on the Phone, waiting for her man to get back.

 I can’t fault Berg for finding a formula that works for him. This is the sort of movie that Middle America eats up because it takes a rose-colored, isn’t-America-great look at a national tragedy. He’s basically doing the work of those who write high school history books for them. But he touches on a far more interesting film in the first half, one that makes you feel moral outrage for men whom show up in a suit and tie on rigs and tell those getting their hands dirty how to actually run it. That sense of disgust would’ve served this film well heading into set pieces where people suffer because of their ignorance.

I must confess that I am a reader of People magazine, and in it I saw this movie mentioned on their Oscar previews. I thought it was odd before I saw it and ridiculous now that I did. Deepwater Horizon is too shallow to merit award consideration. Berg certainly had something interesting cooking when alluding to the causes of the accident, but that just turns into a senseless blur of explosions and “WE GOTTA GET OUT OF HERE”-isms that wear thin. Most importantly, he (outside of a shot of a oil-covered bird) doesn’t touch on any of the environmental consequences of it. Instead, all is good cause Wahlberg goes back home to his family.

Next time I watch a historical movie, I want a little more history and a little less movie. It can help more than you think.

    Post-Script: When Patriot’s Day comes out in the next few months, I will not copy-and-paste my review of this, even if it winds up being the same film. But believe me, resisting that urge is hard.

Published by Jagger Czajka