If there’s any doubt how British Petroleum is portrayed in Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon — the dramatic reenactment of the 2010 explosion off the coast of Louisiana that killed 11 people and led to one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in history — you should know that John Malkovich plays a high ranking BP executive. If you are making a movie and you need a corporate stooge who helped destroy the Gulf of Mexico to come off as absolutely evil, yes, you will want to hire John Malkovich and his Cajun accent.
Where Deepwater Horizon, which just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, succeeds best is in its ability to make a viewer angry — angry that an oil company had so much power that it could literally destroy a region. And people were angry at BP, but we should have been angrier. We should still be angry.
Deepwater Horizon was originally supposed to be directed by J.C. Chandor, who directed an almost dialogue-free film, All is Lost, then followed it up with a meditative gangster movie about heating oil, A Most Violent Year. I have no doubt his version of Deepwater Horizon would be quite different than Peter Berg’s (Friday Night Lights, Lone Survivor) version. Last year, I asked Mark Wahlberg (who plays Mike Williams, an electrician aboard Deepwater Horizon) what happened, he said, “I think it just kind of came down to seeing it differently. And Peter Berg came in after J.C. had stepped away, so it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we’d rather have him instead of him.’”
I am a great admirer of Chandor, but now, after seeing Berg’s version of Deepwater Horizon, I think Berg was the right choice. In this case, I want an “In your face; screw these clowns at BP” take. I want a director who gets angry. Peter Berg seems like an angry man.
The film opens with audio of the real-life Mike Williams giving court testimony as to what happened on that day. The film then flashes back to the morning Mike (Wahlberg) leaves for the Deepwater Horizon. It’s here we get most of our explanations of what the Deepwater Horizon even is (it’s basically a very big boat) and what it is the people on the Deepwater Horizon do (they are not drillers, they are the exploratory team) in the clever guise of Mike prepping his young daughter for a “what my parents do for a living” speech at school. A soda can is used as a model: a metal tube punctures the bottom of the can, then honey is put in the tube to stop the pressurized soda from gushing out. The Deepwater Horizon uses mud to do basically the same thing.
We hear a lot about mud.
That’s the thing: Other than a scene of literally explaining the complicated specifics of what the Deepwater Horizon does to a child, the film doesn’t stop again to fill us in. There’s a lot of lingo about drilling that I bet Harry Stamper’s crew would love, but to us common non-drilling folk, it can be a little confusing. But, I kind of like it that way. Eventually, it just kind of sinks in — it’s a little like spending time in a country in which a foreign language is spoken. You may never completely understand it, but you get the gist when something is bad. And in Deepwater Horizon, it’s mostly bad.
Kurt Russell (I am glad we live in a world with a Kurt Russell resurgence happening) plays the head of safety for the rig, Jimmy Harrell (everyone calls him Mr. Jimmy). Russell is the True North of this story. You may think it’s going to be Wahlberg running around the rig, threatening BP stooges within an inch of their life, but Wahlberg is more of an observer who just keeps telling us that nothing on the rig is working properly. It’s Russell who does the threatening. It’s Russell who has the ongoing showdown with Malkovich about the safety of the oil well (Mr. Jimmy does not think it’s safe at all). It’s Russell who, obviously, loses this fight.
Berg, kind of surprisingly, doesn’t go too over the top with the heroics. There’s one scene, near the end, after the explosion, involving Wahlberg and Gina Rodriguez, playing the Deepwater worker who first puts out a distress call, wading though a fiery hell that pushes the boundaries of “real-life horrific tale” and “action movie” — but there was no way we’d get through a Berg movie without one of these scenes.