Filmmaker Peter Berg is a U.S patriot, his body of work increasingly seems fascinated with the examples of heroics that are drowned out by controversy. The first two of his unexpected Mark Wahlberg trilogy “Lone Survivor” and “Deepwater Horizon,” (I’m yet to catch “Patriot’s Day”) are films wrangling with concepts of heroics with men surrounded by situations and events that heroism have become almost taboo to talk about. “Lone Survivor” demonstrated the survival impulse of special forces operative Marcus Luttrell whose team are dispatched on a kill mission for Taliban leader Ahmad Shah when they’re ambushed. Their tiny unit battle fiercely for their lives, but as the title suggests, only one member makes it through. “Deepwater Horizon” is a dramatisation of the lifesaving heroics of the oil rig workers who escaped the blazing destruction at the epicentre of the greatest oil disaster in U.S History. Berg seems to have bridged the gap between the extreme American Triumphalism of Michael Bay and the male existential professionalism quandary present in the work of Michael Mann.
Coming back to the rig to finalise preparations for drilling Engineer Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) and supervising lead Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) return to “Deepwater Horizon” to find that suits from BP have attempted to speed up a behind schedule operation by bypassing necessary safety checks. Jimmy takes command and attempts to right the ship. His corrective actions are too late and the rush job is a powder keg waiting for a spark.
Berg echoes Mann in the beginnings of “Deepwater,” spending a great deal of time getting to the nitty gritty detail of the technical proficiency required to make large scaling drilling possible safely. These are not merely grunts hauling heavy things; they are consummate professionals managing the crazy reality of being on a floating drilling platform ship, tapping into a geyser of extremely flammable and valuable liquid. Mistakes mean lives of people on the crew and the lives of the entire marine ecosystem that you’re interrupting. You don’t feel like you need cliff notes though, Berg and writers Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand use the nifty trick of having Mike’s daughter Sydney (Stella Allen) recount her school project titled ‘What my Daddy Does’ for her father’s review. It’s guilt free explanatory exposition and simplified science to bring the audience into the world. Mike (Wahlberg) and Jimmy (Russell) and their teams then repeatedly badger the BP ‘company men’ about their waves of negligent decisions that put them on the precipice of unstoppable disaster. Of course, the corporate heads here, save for perhaps John Malkovich’s Vidrine, need everything dumbed down.
Wahlberg may have top billing on the poster, but his everyman ‘lead’ has the gravitas of an extended cameo. Russell’s Jimmy is the lifeblood of the film. I’m reminded of my diminutive, yet commanding Geography teacher, orchestrating the proceedings who you expect to suddenly pull the handbrake if something doesn’t feel right. Gina Rodriguez is barely around to make an impression, the driver of this incredible rig Andrea but it’s the conflict displayed under pressure by Ethan Suplee’s Jason and the slippery manipulation of John Malkovich’s Vidrine that rounds out the film.
Berg, Carnahan and Sand are forthright with their opinions of the greedy; corner cutting, negligent BP ‘spend thrifts.’ Once disaster strikes though; the focus shifts firmly to the valiant acts of those people in the eye of the storm. Berg unleashes hell it’s a like a napalm meat grinder. Bodies are thrown and catapulted through the air; glass explodes and coats bare skin like biting powdered sugar; bones burst through skin and flames ride the oil onto every surface. Berg intends to make you cringe, to take those sharp hisses of breath. The brave men and women focus on stopping the worst case scenario from unfolding. Their attempts, as history tells us, are fruitless. That didn’t halt their resolve to attempt to halt the unfolding carnage before they saved themselves.
In the midst of an escape, the entire “Deepwater Horizon” rig is in engulfed in flames. The American flag bellows against a wall of flames. One feels like Berg’s flag isn’t one of jingoistic impulses but rather it hover there like a question. Is this what we stand for? Corporate greed as the price for lives of America’s best and brightest; the disastrous natural consequences are well known ($54 Billion in clean-up, economic and environmental damages). Bay’s patriot imagery are like exclamation points, reinforcing an ideology. Berg’s patriotism is a challenge, asking the audience to recognise these acts as service to their country.
Director: Peter Berg
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Matthew Sand (Screenplay and screen story) [based on the article by David Barstow, David Rohde and Stephanie Saul]
Mark Wahlberg: Mike Williams
Kurt Russell: Jimmy Harrell
Douglas M. Griffin: Landry
James DuMont: O’Bryan
Joe Christ: Sims
Gina Rodriguez: Andrea Fleytas
Brad Leland: Kaluza
John Malkovich: Vidrine
David Maldonado: Kuchta
Ethan Suplee: Jason Anderson
Kate Hudson: Felicia
Stella Allen: Sydney
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