What kind of disaster movie is Deepwater Horizon? Well, it stars Mark Wahlberg. Full stop. This time, Wahlberg forsakes being ripped for being real, trading in his Hollywood-brand chisel for a slight gut, a hard hat, and good-humored dad-itude. He plays real-life electrical engineer Mike Williams, the last man to escape the fiery Deepwater Horizon rig after it exploded in 2010. Joining him are the too-rare Kate Hudson as his wife and John Malkovich, who plays the bad guy, a slithering BP stooge with a florid Cajun accent and sweaty armpits.
So: a disaster movie with a power ensemble — thus a power budget ($156 million). Its costliest item has to be what’s been called “the biggest practical set ever constructed” — a mock oil rig that, standing 75 feet tall by 150 feet wide and housed in a million-gallon tank at an abandoned theme park, is 85 percent to scale. Early on in the movie, helicopters swoop down and around the rig in huge “Look, Ma! No CGI!” arcs, impressing upon us not only the folly of Deepwater’s actual heft, but also the implausibility of its destruction. In a way, it’s kind of beautiful; Deepwater was called “the floating Hilton” while it stood. It’ll all be kindling by the end of the movie, of course, but you almost have to admire the willingness to literally burn through all of that Hollywood money for a project that, though historical, nowadays counts as original and risky. It’s Titanic or The Towering Inferno for the Iron Man era. Maybe that answers the question: Deepwater Horizon isn’t just a disaster movie. It’s a throwback.
And so is its central image: the wild rush of oil that becomes a catastrophic flame. There may come a time when the sight of oil bursting out of a pressured drill pipe won’t resemble America incarnate, all of the country’s foibles and slick ambitions summed up in a satisfying money shot, the oil practically a cascade of liquid black dollar signs. We’re not there yet. Berg’s movie swerves from that symbolism slightly. Unlike most ripped-from-the-headlines films, Deepwater Horizon isn’t masquerading as a cautionary tale or trenchant social critique.
That’s surprising. Deepwater Horizon is the kind of movie you’d expect to play out like a secular-capitalist fable — David versus Goliath Inc. — with the blue-collar men and women on the rig, particularly those 11 men who lost their lives, fashioned into everyday heroes. Berg’s movie stands out for being more specific, its nose closer to the ground than what you might expect in an era of superhero allegories and feckless hero-worship (wrongly) associated with folks like Clint Eastwood. Berg’s movie gestures toward all of that, but it sticks to a firm idea of what it is. This is a disaster movie, plain and simple; a tale of survival whose justified sense of outrage — the Deepwater fire resulted in the single-worst environmental event of its kind — is wrenched into exciting drama rather than a moral indictment. Mind you, BP, Halliburton, and the like are still the clear villains of this story — their decision-making (which favors the impractical, impersonal needs of big business over the safety of workers) is to blame for what happens. As the Deepwater crew’s gruff but likable boss Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) says to a room full of BP execs: “We’re just the help y’all hired to drill a hole.”
But not so fast, Norma Rae. There’s no class discontent here — not explicitly, anyway. That’s in large part due to the the exhaustively detailed New York Times investigation the movie is based on. That piece offers up a screenplay’s worth of outrage-ready sweet spots and tragic ironies (like that the Deepwater Horizon received a safety award the day it exploded). But it’s also overloaded with procedural detail, a sense of how deep-sea drilling and oil rigs work, who does what, and what went wrong. That more or less summarizes the movie. Berg, whose previous film efforts include Friday Night Lights and the recent Wahlberg collaboration Lone Survivor, flexes his talent for docu-realism; the film’s natural-sounding dialogue and handheld camera work make the actors seem like people. For about half of Deepwater’s running time, we hover from process to process, watching the crew ready themselves for a 21-day stint at sea. We drop in on meetings and overhear quick-witted banter about yoga and broken-down cars, picking up ominous details along the way — for example, a cement bond log that never happened and other hints that pressure is building 3,500 feet below the rig.
Berg brings this penchant for detail to the devastating explosion itself. The rig doesn’t explode outright so much as fail gradually, playing out in fascinatingly choreographed waves of catastrophe: This fails, then that, then this, and that, and this, like a sequence of Rockette kicks. It’s an expensive-looking endeavor, reminiscent of so many Marvel movies despite costing significantly less. And yet, superhero movies are by now overburdened with questions about God (or near-gods), political power, the war du jour, or whatever else. Deepwater, by contrast, immerses us so thoroughly in a play-by-play of the disaster that bigger questions get choked out of the movie.
Is that refreshing or merely efficient? Well, both. Deepwater Horizon flies by. When it ended, I looked up at the screen satisfied, exhausted, and a little confused. That’s all? The movie has a predictable “Real Heroes Don’t Wear Capes” attitude, but it so thoroughly does away with the scaffolding “everyday hero” movies typically lean on that it sells itself, to its credit, simply as an awesome reenactment of what happened. But to its detriment, it risks underselling the tragedy, or even the accompanying satire-worthy bureaucratic farce that followed. Nowadays, when too many action movies want to cosplay as allegories — we can’t even catapult Sandra Bullock into space without a craven meditation on motherhood hurtling toward her like space debris — there’s something unusual about a film that resists the need for righteous anger.
What does that portend for Berg and Wahlberg’s next collaboration, Patriots Day? The film, about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, could wind up being another well-oiled, expensively mounted, wildly entertaining action thriller about painful recent history — not that Deepwater is burdened by that incongruity. Typical of the genre, it honors the Deepwater Horizon’s real victims with a mournful credit sequence. The end titles don’t clarify which actors played these workers, or even whether they were characters in the movie. For many, that will be a flaw. But maybe the best possible thing to be said for Berg’s work, the greatest relief to the dead, is that it knows its limits. It knows what it is: not a memorial or a political indictment, but merely a movie.