Fall is the time when so-called “prestige” movies start their march into theaters, hoping to catch the attention of awards voters to get those ever-elusive Oscar nominations. There are many worthy contenders coming out — but I never expected to add Deepwater Horizon to the list.
That has nothing to do with the story, which details the events surrounding the explosion of the titular offshore drilling rig in 2010, and everything to do with the director. Peter Berg, whose last two films were Battleship and Lone Survivor, is not exactly known for subtlety. Although that tendency detracted from some of his other movies, he finds a way to balance his action urges with the storytelling in Deepwater Horizon to make a movie that almost defies description.
Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell lead the way as Mike and Jimmy, two of the higher-ups in the drilling team on the rig. From the moment they arrive for a planned three-week stay, they are at odds with executives from the BP oil company (John Malkovich and others), whom they view as pushing things too far in the name of cutting costs. When a vital test of the rig goes awry, it creates a chain reaction that soon has each of them running for their lives.
Berg and writers Matthew Michael Carnahan and Michael Sand do something completely unexpected when setting up the fateful events: They don’t dumb anything down. The film is full of technical jargon about the rig and its inner workings, and although there are some obvious efforts to make it understandable for a general audience, there are many times where the best you can do is nod along as if what they’re saying makes perfect sense.
What this accomplishes is a sense of place, a crucial element once things start to go to hell. And when they do, Berg does something even more amazing: He comes up with a new type of movie.
You could call it action, because of all the explosions and fire, but the characters act like regular people. You could call it a disaster movie, but most films of that ilk play the danger for thrills instead of the real threat to life it is.
This was a real-life event, and Berg has the decency to pay tribute to the people who went through it while also showing how harrowing their experience was. He and his team create scenes so realistic and intense that it boggles the mind how the actors did them without getting hurt.
It’s logical that CGI was involved in many of the scenes, because re-creating and destroying a rig that size would prove impossible, but most of them feel as if all the effects are practical and not computer-generated.
This pays enormous dividends when it comes to the emotions of the film. Only two of the characters are given any kind of backstory, but Berg wisely, and somewhat surprisingly, doesn’t lean on them for much extra emotional manipulation. And because no one person is portrayed to be a hero above the others, the film earns its tears and chills during the crew’s escape and rescue.
Anyone expecting the film to explore the impact that the disaster and subsequent oil spill had on the ocean and environment along the Louisiana coast will be disappointed. That is a legitimate and necessary story to tell, but it deserves its own movie; it is not something to be tagged onto a film like this.
Deepwater Horizon is not normally the type of film you’d think would be considered for end-of-the-year awards. But because of the care and respect Berg and this team took with the story, and the skill they showed in depicting the horrors the crew experienced, it's one of the best movies of the year so far.