With “Deepwater Horizon,” Hollywood attempts the difficult maneuver of having its cake and eating it too. It’s certainly possible to make a rabble-rousing liberal issue movie, and it’s even easier to make any sort of film that involves lots of CGI explosions, but it’s rare that a filmmaker gets the chance to do both in the same movie.
“Deepwater Horizon” was put together by Participant Media, whose mission statement calls for making “entertainment that inspires and compels social change.” With “Deepwater Horizon,” it is blessed with an actual ecological disaster from 2010 in which an offshore BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico spectacularly went up in flames. The result is something like “Erin Brokovich” crossed with “The Towering Inferno” — one hour of “Big corporations are going to screw you, man,” followed by an hour of fireballs and chaos.
It’s no surprise to find Mark Wahlberg in the lead role as Mike Williams, a chief engineer on the drilling platform; like Matt Dillon before him, it seems nothing signifies “working-class” like an authentic East Coast townie accent. Neither is it surprising to find the face of corporate greed played by a sneering John Malkovich, slipping in and out of some vaguely defined Confederate-state accent. Bald is bad, unless it’s Vin Diesel.
Kurt Russell appears as a grizzled veteran of oil rig management, Jimmy Harrell, who has just received an award from BP for his safety record. Gina Rodriguez shows up as another technician in order to have a cast that is not all old white men.
The first hour of the film has Mike and Jimmy arguing for running all the safety tests before they open the pipes, while BP management, looking at cost overruns and delays, berates them into cutting corners. The pipes rattle and rumble until they finally burst in a spew of subterranean sludge. The build-and-release aesthetic of disaster porn is made entirely specific here.
Director Peter Berg is coming off of “Lone Survivor,” which also starred Wahlberg, as a Navy SEAL on a fatal mission in Afghanistan. That film reached an incredible intensity in its portrayal of the chaos of combat, and Berg tries to repeat the trick here. Perhaps he tries too hard: The film employs the post-“Transformers” ADD-inflected style of hyper-editing, with constant rapid-fire cutting; most cuts are a mere two or three seconds, with the longer ones getting up to around five. This hyperactive sensation gets even worse when the oil rig’s electricity system fails, and the emergency lighting starts strobing on top of everything else. And just as “Lone Survivor” refused to look at the bigger picture of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, “Deepwater Horizon” is entirely about the survival story of the men on board the doomed oil rig — 11 of whom wound up dying — while ignoring the long-term environmental consequences, which are represented by one oil-soaked bird.
We can feel good that “a certain portion” of the film’s profits will go to help the families affected by the accident, yet the very existence of this film is evidence of the insanity we live in today. BP cut corners on safety on the Deepwater Horizon, with catastrophic results to the environment because they were roughly $50 million over budget and couldn’t justify spending more. An entertainment product based on that disaster, however, has no problem attracting $110 million for its budget. More evidence that our priorities need a rethink.