HOLLYWOOD—Disaster movies are a staple of the film industry. It’s not hard to see why. They’re exciting, dramatic, and almost universally demand spectacular visual effects. That doesn’t mean they’re all the same. Some, for lack of a better term, are what they are. People find themselves in danger, they survive, there are heroes and cowards. The best ones manage to honor the real victims, offer us some needed insight, and provide us inspiration. I think “Deepwater Horizon” flirts with being the former, but ultimately is the later.
The story centers on the initial disaster on board the eponymous oil rig that lead to the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Oil workers Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), and Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) take center stage as the crew fights to survive the disaster.
It’s a good cast. Wahlberg does a reliably good if not outstanding job portraying Williams. I didn’t believe he was from the South for a minute, but he sells the hard working, heroic family man. Kurt Russell is good. He doesn’t overplay the grizzled, wise veteran. He portrays his character as an honest man who does the right thing when put in an extraordinary situation. This is true of all the heroic characters I suppose, but Russell nails it.
I have this weird thing where every time I see Ethan Suplee I think of “My Name is Earl.” My mind might immediately go to this, but in truth his dramatic roles are really good. Yes, he brings humor to the role, but he portrays a fully formed character in his role as Jason Anderson. He’s a memorable supporting character who gets you to like him despite having only a little screen time. When you start to care for someone on screen in such a short time you know the actor is doing a good job. Ditto for Dylan O’Brien as Caleb Holloway.
Gina Rodriguez gives a great performance. We have to note that this film does not pass the Bechdel Test. I recently read about a supposed “Mako Mori Test” thought up by a fan of the 2013 film “Pacific Rim.” The Daily Dot reported in 2013 that “Tumblr user Chaila has proposed the Mako Mori Test, ‘to live alongside the Bechdel Test’” the article goes on to quote Chaila “The Mako Mori Test is passed if the movie has: a) at least one female character; b) who gets her own narrative arc; c) that is not about supporting a man’s story.”
I think we can say that “Deepwater Horizon” passes this test. Fleytas’ story is as independent and important as any of the others, and she acts heroically during the disaster. Yes, she shows fear, but it never drives her to cowardice (and there is a big difference there). I never thought she was put in a position where her character is a prop for a male’s plot. All in all, we can say this is a strong female character that honors the actual person. We have to tip our hats to the filmmakers.
The story moves at a good pace. Director Peter Berg and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand do a good job of building the tension, establishing the players involved, and not letting the story linger too long in any one pace. At times there was a tendency to luxuriate in the explosions, but it’s a minor complaint.
“Deepwater Horizon” is really channeling two prior blockbusters, “The Perfect Storm” and “Jurassic Park.” All these films share an epic scope and similar symbolism. It was almost eerie how similar we feel when watching the crew fly out to the oil rig and the scene in “Jurassic Park” where they fly out to the island. Like Wahlberg’s prior film “The Perfect Storm,” “Deepwater Horizon” shows a group of hard working, average people trying to make their way in life best they can that act heroically when an extraordinary situation is thrust upon them.
What I think makes the film stand out is the way in which it channels “Jurassic Park” character Ian Malcolm’s ever pertinent warning on chaos. One of the best scenes in that whole franchise is the one where they are sitting around the table eating before the havoc begins, and Malcolm explains in no uncertain terms that control is an illusion in the face of powerful forces like nature and unpredictability.
In “Deepwater Horizon,” the continuous cutting of corners, money grubbing arrogance, and the pressure placed on the workers to skirt safety concerns all serve as exposition to this point. Sometimes the foreshadowing is laid on a little thick (the soda can), but I feel the birds were a strong symbol. They in effect are chaos, the event that can come from nowhere and devastate the unprepared. We act sloppily and flippantly in the face of it at our peril.
The film is as deeply against corporate greed as any. British Petroleum and its on board lackeys come off as money obsessed, careless idiots who bear full responsibility for the disaster. The anger at the company is palpable, and you might consider this to be something of a protest film as well as disaster movie.
If there was anything disappointing about this movie, it was the failure to address the devastating impact the spill had on both the environment and people of the Gulf Coast in general. We are only given a small postscript. I didn’t think this was enough. I get that the center of the story was the workers who survived the initial disaster, and there is nothing wrong with that. Still when you have a disaster with such far reaching consequences the aftermath should be addressed in a more significant way. If you have to add a few scenes and extend the length of the movie a bit so be it.
Overall it is a solid, well acted disaster movie. It honors those who died in the disaster, especially the heroes like crane operator Dale Burkeen. It has a relevant point to make, and pays homage to some good blockbusters that came before it. It’s a good film that’s worth the price of admission.