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06 Oct 2016

Really Realistic: Peter Berg's 'Deepwater Horizon' Works as Both a Horror and a Drama Film

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Mark Wahlberg in Deepwater Horizon. Mark Wahlberg in Deepwater Horizon.

I think my shockingly lustrous eyelashes got singed watching Deepwater Horizon, director Peter Berg’s harrowing account of the worst oil-rig disaster in American history.

Berg’s film drops viewers into a situation where fire and explosions are so realistic that it seems like you can feel the heat and disorientation of the 2010 disaster, which claimed the lives of 11 men and led to an oil spill eclipsing all other oil spills.

Mark Wahlberg is first-rate as Mike Williams, a real man who was on the rig at the time of the disaster. Kurt Russell equals Wahlberg’s power as Jimmy Harrell, a man who questions the integrity of the rig—and then proceeds to have the worst cinematic shower since Janet Leigh had a showdown with Anthony Perkins.

The setup is a doozy: Williams and Harrell head out for a three-week stay on the Deepwater Horizon along with a couple of BP stuffed shirts. Much to their amazement, men who were supposed to be conducting all-important tests leave shortly after their arrival without conducting anything; that gets Russell’s Harrell all riled up. Seeing Russell all riled up is always fun.

The lack of testing leads to a showdown with a sleazy BP employee, played by a slithery John Malkovich. Some backward reasoning leads to the acceptance of some bad drill results, and Deepwater Horizon is cleared to start up. Unbeknownst to the higher-ups and technicians, there’s a cataclysmic clog, and mud explodes upward. You probably know the rest.

Berg puts his film together in a way in which the mere sight of mud oozing from a pipe is terrifying. When the disaster goes into high gear, Deepwater Horizon is as scary as any horror film to hit screens this year—and there have been some pretty good horror films in 2016. The staging of explosions and fire, many done upon an oil rig built exclusively for this film, are award-worthy.

There’s a true sense of isolation and disorientation when the action goes full-throttle. Props to the editor for creating a sensation of being utterly lost in the mayhem that escalates until the final two survivors jump many stories to the ocean below.

It’s not all about the fire and explosions, as Berg, his writers and his performers all give the movie a true heroic element—one that results in heartbreak after the film plays out. Some good people perished in this disaster, and the movie pays solid tribute to them, including a nice epilogue featuring real footage and photos of the victims.

Kate Hudson plays Williams’ wife, who is having a Skype conversation with him when everything starts to go south. Hudson has always been good for waterworks, and she gets an opportunity to show off that talent here. Other standouts include Ethan Suplee as one of the men in the ill-fated drill command center, Gina Rodriguez as an employee who must endure the incompetence of a co-worker, and Dylan O’Brien as a drill worker who couldn’t have been closer to the initial stages of the disaster.

To call this a disaster film similar to those put out by Irwin Allen in the 1970s is both a compliment and a bit belittling. (Some of those where pretty great, including The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno.) While this film follows a similar, schlocky blueprint at times, it has a little more substance and heart than those goofy blockbusters.

Berg and Wahlberg, who also collaborated on the very good Lone Survivor, aren’t done in 2016. Somehow, they worked it into their schedules to deliver Patriots Day, a film about the Boston Marathon bombing, on Dec. 21 in limited release, before an expanded release in January 2017. These guys are busy with their true-life epics.

Deepwater Horizon is playing at theaters across the valley.

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