THE FILM 4.5/5
“Daddy, you need to get me a fossil.
I want to be able to hold it up and say,
‘My daddy tamed the dinosaurs.'”
Mark Wahlberg leads an all-star cast in this unforgettably powerful film inspired by a thrilling story of real-life heroes. For the one hundred and twenty-six people aboard the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig, April 20, 2010, began like any normal day. Before day’s end, the world would bear witness to one of the greatest man-made disasters in U.S. history. Deepwater Horizon reveals the brave acts of the men and women who rose to the challenge—and risked everything to lead others to safety.
By now, the disaster film is a cinematic institution — perhaps even an American one. The most famous disaster film is likely The Poseidon Adventure, the original starring Paul Newman and its tepid remake featuring Deepwater Horizon‘s Kurt Russell. A harmless slice of escapism and with a certain amount of stupidity (about a ship that gets hit by a big wave and rolls entirely upside down), it’s the kind of A-list-casted B-movie that studios sometimes turn to when they really feel like turning off their brains. Somewhere along the way it was forgotten that these kinds of films are also allowed to be emotional, and when inspired by true events, made with respect for both those who lived it for real, and for the circumstances which led to the disaster being replicated on screen.
Peter Berg as a filmmaker has had a directorial career which could best be described as inconsistent. Previous films, like Lone Survivor or The Kingdom, were well-meaning and made for reasons beyond just popcorn entertainment, but ultimately fell flat. And he may very well be forever marred for having been the director of Battleship, the least unnecessary film of the last decade. When it was announced that he’d be the one to bring a dramatization of the very real 2010 event — the worst environmental disaster in American history — it was easy to react in a typically cynical way: the guy who made Battleship would be the one to ape a very real and very terrible event and turn it into a disaster film.
I’ve said it before and Ii’ll say it again: cynicism has its benefits, as it can often lead to surprise.
With a screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan (State of Play) and Matthew Sand, and with an excellent and believable ensemble cast, Deepwater Horizon excels. Like its cinematic soulmate United 93, from the get-go the audience knows something terrible is going to happen. They have seen the newspaper headline and they’ve seen the aftermath images on the news. The suspense is built in to every pre-disaster frame. There are no ominous shots of faulty equipment; there are no inclusions of evil BP oil men laughing maniacally and smoking cigars. Mark Wahlberg’s Mike Williams sliding out of his pick-up truck at the harbor is riddled with suspense, as is Kurt Russell’s Jimmy Harrell accepting an award from BP for heading up an accident-free environment. It’s suspenseful because we know these men are heading toward doom, and the longer we spend with them, the more we like them, which is going to make their confrontation with disaster hurt that much harder. (It’s been at least two decades since Russell has both starred in and offered a performance as good.)
And like United 93, much of its first act is dedicated to fly-on-the-wall immersion in day-to-day operations of our characters’ professional environment. The employees of Transocean interact, and it’s through these interactions we’re able to piece together what their roles are, what they do, and what work life is like. We hear terms and phrases we don’t really understand — and since we’re not offshore oil drillers, we’re not expected to — but the screenplay is written in such a way that we’re able to follow along anyway, with a rough idea of what these men and women do, and how potentially dangerous it is.
As a director, Peter Berg hasn’t made a film as suspenseful and emotional since 2004’s Friday Night Lights. As it stands, it just might be the best film of his career so far (his Boston-bombing drama Patriot’s Day is prepping for release as this review is being written). His intent on focusing on a handful of core characters and fleshing them out as much as he can prior to the disaster portion is evenly handed — along with fairly. John Malkovich’s Vidrine, BP Asshole, doesn’t convey evil or mania so much as he’s simply being reckless with his pressuring of Transocean workers to proceed with a drill, despite some ominous stability tests. Like the rest of them, he has a boss he has to answer to, and like the rest of them, he just wants the job done. By film’s end, he’ll realize just how very wrong he was.
But what will appeal to all audiences are the sequences of destruction, which are magnificently handled, with no punches pulled. Actual survivors of the disaster were constantly on set to ensure that what was being portrayed hewed as closely to reality as possible. Obviously it would be asinine to suggest watching it unfold in the safety of your home is just like being there, but Deepwater Horizon is intent on being as realistic and immersive an experience as it can, which includes definitely making its audience uncomfortable, horrified, and emotionally ravaged.
THE PICTURE 4.5/5
The third act of Deepwater Horizon obviously and inevitably employs heavy use of CGI, but thankfully very rarely does anything about it come off artificial or cartoonish. The video presentation helps to preserve the reality of the disaster that unfolds. Clarity is amazingly captured, with detail ably showing up in every scene. The post-disaster face of Kurt Russell will haunt your dreams, with the camera unwilling to cut away, and not a single detail has been lost in the transition from theater to Blu-ray. Colors are remarkably strong, and the destruction sequences, awful as they are, look extremely well rendered.
THE SOUND 5/5
Talk about reference-quality audio. It’s not surprising to hear that Deepwater Horizon offers one of the most engaging, dynamic, and rich audio presentations for a home video release in quite some time. The Dolby Atmos track certainly helps ensure that. Dialogue is front and center and never becomes lost even in the midst of the fiery carnage. And speaking of carnage, the nastiness and the overwhelming sense of destruction will overtake your speaker system for nearly the final 45 minutes.
THE SUPPLEMENTS 4/5
Despite a lack of a director’s commentary, the supplements on hand do a fine and thorough job of covering both the production as well as the real event which inspired it, including interviews with every major cast and crew member, along with those individuals who lived it for real. “Beyond the Horizon” focuses on all the major character, the actors who played them, and when possible, the real individuals being portrayed. “Captain of the Rig” focuses on the director, his intent, his approach to the story, and his shooting style, which is compared to that of Clint Eastwood.
The complete list of special features is as follows:
- “Beyond the Horizon” Hour-Long Five-Part Series
- “Captain of the Rig: Peter Berg” Featurette
- “The Fury of the Rig” Featurette
- “Deepwater Surveillance” Featurette
- “Work Like An American” Tributes
It’s been more than a decade, but finally director Peter Berg has made a film that’s both excellent in its construction, pacing, and emotion, and one that’s also incredibly respectful to its subject matter. If you’re here simply for the carnage, Deepwater Horizon won’t let you down. If you’re here for the drama along with it, you’ll appreciate it even more. But if you’re here for the human element — to understand what these men and women went through, and how bad of a disaster it actually was, and what it did to those who survived it, Deepwater Horizon ranks as one of the best films of 2016.
Lionsgate is a leading global entertainment company with a strong and diversified presence in motion picture production and distribution, television programming and syndication, home entertainment, family entertainment, digital distribution, new channel platforms, and international distribution and sales.