DEEPWATER HORIZON (2016, Peter Berg)
Perhaps you missed LONE SURVIVOR, Berg’s tribute to the unsung heroes of these United States of America — the men from humble homes who sacrifice their lives for our freedom. So maybe you think you should see DEEPWATER HORIZON, which shares the same star (Mark Wahlberg) and which further explores Berg’s fascination with everyday heroes from red states. But don’t worry; if you miss it, you’ll have another chance in December when PATRIOTS DAY comes out. At this rate, every single true story of working class American men in peril will eventually become a movie starring Wahlberg and directed by Berg.
The biggest problem with this rapid sequence of churned-out honor is how the movies suffer from being undercooked. DEEPWATER HORIZON in particular feels like a product of over-ambition crippled by a lack of talent in key areas. Berg is at his best when the material is part of his DNA. FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS is a masterpiece of time and place (the book’s author is his cousin) that spawned an equally great TV series. But to do this story right means taking the time to figure out how to tell it — and either that time wasn’t taken or Berg just isn’t capable. Exposition is handled either clumsily or not at all. We know both too much and too little about what’s happening on screen, and despite over an hour spent detailing this oil rig, we still have trouble following where exactly everything and everyone is during the chaos. James Cameron’s attention to detail with TITANIC translated not just to impressive historic documentation but to audience enthrallment. That movie earns our suspension of disbelief because of how well laid-out the boat is. Here, we get pages of dialogue about negative pressure tests and cement logs and kill lines, but the blocking, framing, and cutting of footage still resembles just a haphazard mess of ill-fitting parts.
Buried in the sludge of exploded mud and oil and seawater are some wonderful elements. Kurt Russell and John Malkovich in particular give terrific performances — Russell is the moral backbone, a steely captain with the respect of an entire platoon; Malkovich is given the role of the corporate weasel, a cost-cutting scumbag bearing the weight of all blame and responsibility the film heaps upon his shoulders (when an end-credit slug told us his character was cleared of manslaughter charges, several audience members in my theater shouted gasps of anger) but he manages to make every line sing. (Only Malkovich can give the word “blue” three syllables). It’s hard to make a one-dimensional part any more exhilarating. Wahlberg coasts along, while Russell’s step-daughter Kate Hudson gets to play the worried wife on the phone. Her role, and the innocent face of their ten-year-old daughter, serve as the film’s most shameless string-pulling — signposts of a storybook family for Wahlberg to return to. The tears aren’t very well earned, just begged for — and Wahlberg’s final scene doesn’t carry nearly the gravitas of Tom Hanks’s stunning moment in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. But the action sequences here, when they’re intelligible, are viscerally exciting. It’s just that they can’t live up to a theoretical vision that could have been on screen through more careful writing, storyboarding, and production. Slow down, Pete. I get that “every single soldier is a hero,” but take some time and turn fast food into a gourmet meal.