From April 20 to July 15 of 2010 — nearly three full months — the Macondo oil well leaked almost five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Over three hundred Olympic swimming pools full of crude oil gushed from a hole drilled into the ocean floor, a mile below the surface, while BP had no idea how to repair a mistake at that depth. I want you to remember that, because to Peter Berg it’s an afterthought.
Deepwater Horizon — named for the exploratory rig that drilled the ill-fated hole — is entirely concerned with the explosion on the rig that resulted from the wellhead blowout. Yes, it was a tragedy that killed eleven workers. And of course oil rig workers are another “real American man” archetype just like the special forces soldiers from Berg’s last mansploitation flick, Lone Survivor, so they’re perfect characters for “real man” actors like Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell, not to mention a cameo by Berg himself. Meanwhile, John Malkovich is perfect for the vaguely-effeminate manager type who makes all the wrong decisions to cut corners and overrides the good judgement of the manly riggers and gets some of them killed.
Except again, focusing on this one manager and his bad decisions draws attention away from the real problems. The entire petroleum drilling industry is founded on cutting corners, and the influence of the obscene quantities of money they make has clouded government oversight and regulation as thoroughly as the smoke from any burning rig. Yes, it was a terrible decision to skip certain tests in a rush to cap off one well and get on to the next prospect. But it was also a terrible decision to drill a mile below the surface without any idea how to fix things when they eventually went wrong, or even how to contain the resulting oily sludge before it washed up on nearly five hundred miles of the most vulnerable wetlands in the nation. Berg is hardly going to say that, though, since it would imply that these manly men shouldn’t have been out there doing this job in the first place.
Of course, it’s a sin to criticize a movie simply for not being a different movie I would have preferred be made on the subject. After all, Berg never flat-out lies to push his misguided agenda the way Eastwood does in Sully. So how’s this: Deepwater Horizon is a terrible, visually incoherent and incomprehensible mess.
The leadup to the blowout is already shaky. The only steady shots are those that establish the dutiful admiration of Wahlberg’s character’s wife and daughter (Kate Hudson and Stella Allen), and that the one token woman on the rig (Gina Rodriguez) is well-meaning but mechanically incompetent in her appreciation of manly things like muscle cars. By the time we get to the rig, every shot is handheld and shaky, and cut haphazardly between points on the rig and inserts of the wellhead burbling menacingly. There is little effort to actually explain what’s going on as Berg and his editors jump from one man to another. The attitude seems to be that if BP and Transocean didn’t know what was going on, we shouldn’t either. The goal is to impress and overwhelm us, rather than to elucidate.
When the disaster strikes about an hour the movie, even the little coherence Berg had before is lost. The last forty minutes are a confused mashup of fire and explosions and noise in split-second shots. It’s meant to be thrilling, but it cannot thrill because it’s impossible to tell what’s going on. One repeated image has a flaming latticed girder slamming into another one, but against a pitch-black background there’s no sense of scale or orientation. Is it falling down? swinging side-to-side? Where is it in relation to the characters? It’s impossible to say from the images Berg chooses to show.
But whatever Berg seems to have forgotten about making a comprehensible film, he does know one thing: his audience. There is a ready-made army of moviegoers, ready to pay down their money for anyone who will tell them that they — or at least the kind of people they idolize — are heroes. It may not matter whether or not the movie is any good, as long as it tells them exactly what they want to hear. And if that means ignoring the real, fundamental, systemic problems in the offshore drilling industries, along with the immense scale of damage from this incident that goes far beyond eleven lives, then so be it.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.