DEEPWATER HORIZON * *
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Kate Hudson, Gina Rodriguez and John Malkovich. Screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand. Directed by Peter Berg.
I believe it was while watching a CGI bomb’s-eye-view of the USS Arizona sinking in Michael Bay’s appalling Pearl Harbor that I regretfully accepted there’s nothing Hollywood won’t turn into a fucking amusement park ride. Unencumbered by pesky concerns such as good taste or common decency, a queasy sub-genre of movies like Black Hawk Down and 13 Hours strenuously avoids placing action-adventure thrills within any political framework whatsoever, callously cashing in on actual tragedies with a pious, phony populism, paying lip service to “real-life heroes” while also offing them in slick bursts of videogame violence. With films like this you don’t get any historical context except that stuff blowed-up good, but that’s okay because during the closing credits you’ll hear sad music and see pictures of people who really died.
Director Peter Berg’s 2013 hit Lone Survivor was a particularly egregious example, a lurid spectacle of sado-masochistic military porn and an exercise in flattering the insatiable ego of star-producer Mark Wahlberg. (A couple weeks after the film came out I somehow ended up getting blotto with a Utah bartender who’d served two terms in Afghanistan and apropos of nothing he told me, “Lone Survivor is the biggest piece of shit I’ve ever seen in a movie theater.”) Berg is a gifted craftsman who helmed the excellent Friday Night Lights and shepherded its even-better small-screen spin-off, while his sublimely goofy 2003 bomb The Rundown is secretly one of the best action films of that decade. Unfortunately in recent years he’s adopted the belligerent persona of a high school friend you never liked who posts aggrieved slogans and pictures of the American flag on Facebook all day.
It’s tempting to describe Deepwater Horizon as Lone Survivor with an oil spill, but that would require the movie spending more than thirty seconds on the worst ecological disaster in history. (You remember the one that gushed 210 million gallons of oil for eighty-seven days and was so massive you could see it from space? Good, because you’re not gonna learn anything about it here.) Instead, this is a film about a large semi-submersible structure that explodes in the middle of the night, and a brave chief electronics engineer (who just so happens to be played by the movie’s producer) running around dodging fireballs and rescuing all the famous supporting actors in the cast. As far as tasteless theme park rides go Deepwater Horizon isn’t terrible, but it also takes a galling sort of myopia to turn this particular story into a star vehicle with a happy ending.
Mark Wahlberg stars as Mike Williams, a working-class-hero with a one-liner for every occasion and a drawl straight out of Dorchester, TX. Mike’s not a character so much as he’s a living embodiment of the “real ‘Muerican values” that Berg sells way too hard these days with an aesthetic that’s basically a domestic beer commercial with mournful electric guitars. This is bad casting for Wahlberg, whose natural, dim-bulb arrogance works best when undercut in comedies where he’s not sure if the joke’s on him. Much, much better in the film is Kurt Russell as the rig’s beloved supervisor, as usual exuding salt of the earth without breaking a sweat. (Funny how this guy who grew up as a Hollywood child star is one of the few actors working today who can convincingly play blue collar.)
There’s a genuinely atrocious performance from John Malkovich as the British Petroleum pencil-pusher the movie makes singlehandedly responsible for the disaster. With buck teeth and a Cajun accent that sounds like Bill Hader doing James Carville on methadone, he spends most of the first hour threatening our heroes while furtively glancing around the office, I assume looking for a lady to tie to some train tracks. (Not since Billy Zane in Titanic has a disaster movie had so silly a villain.) The more Deepwater Horizon pins everything on Malkovich’s stuffed shirt, the more I couldn’t help thinking about how deftly Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips indicted the systemic late capitalist pressures that put good working men and women at risk every day, and how much more unsettling that was than blaming it all on an overacting boogeyman from the corporate office.
I realize I’m probably making Deepwater Horizon sound worse than it is. Berg is a proficient director of explosions, and there are certainly plenty of those here. I admired how he spends the first half of the movie following his characters around the rig, laying out the spatial geography with a clarity that pays off later when all hell breaks loose. I also smiled at a shortcut by screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, who unload the necessary technical information by having Wahlberg’s daughter rehearse a “what daddy does at work” demonstration for her second-grade class. (I hope this inspires more movies to keep their exposition-dumps at an elementary grade level.)
Still, it’s impossible not to resent the puniness of this picture’s concerns, ignoring the historic environmental catastrophe in favor of fictionalized feats of derring-do by an underwear-model-turned-hamburger-franchise-mogul. The movie even reduces a tough-talking helmswoman (Jane The Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez) to a whimpering damsel in distress who needs to be rescued by a wisecracking Wahlberg. And just in case the producer-star hasn’t been fellated enough, Deepwater Horizon ends with what feels like at least seven minutes of characters whispering “thank you” to Mark Wahlberg in slow-motion. By then you might be muttering something else that rhymes.