There’s a fine line between having a compelling story to tell, and telling a compelling story.
The recent movie SULLY (2016) is a perfect example of the latter. It had a compelling story to tell, and director Clint Eastwood knew how to tell it.
DEEPWATER HORIZON (2016), on the other hand, tells the story of the 2010 explosion on the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, an event that led to the worst oil spill in U.S. history. It’s a memorable story, but the movie struggles to tell it.
The film opens with Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) at home with his family, getting ready to say farewell to them for a few weeks while he returns to work on the Deepwater Horizon. He’s enjoying time with his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and their daughter, and if you’ve seen the film’s trailer, you’ve seen the cute conversation they all share over their breakfast table. It actually made for a very effective trailer, but here in the film it only adds to a rather slow beginning.
The purpose of these early family scenes is to personalize the story. Rather than follow the lives of many people on the rig, the film chooses to follow mostly Mike, and to juxtapose his scenes with those of the panicked Felicia back home. This really isn’t all that effective, and sadly reduces Kate Hudson to being in a series of reaction shots where she doesn’t do much more than look worried.
So Mike goes off to work and meets up with his boss Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) and co-worker Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez). Once on the rig, Jimmy immediately butts heads with members of the company that owns Deepwater Horizon led by a man named Vidrine (John Malkovich) who has been cutting costs by skimping on routine safety checks because he believes the Deepwater Horizon will work fine without them. Jimmy, of course, is protective of his crew and refuses to proceed without the necessary precautionary tests.
Unfortunately, Jimmy’s tests are too little too late, as the company had let things slide so badly, that in the middle of one of the tests, the equipment is compromised and there is a gush of mud which overheats the engines and leads to a catastrophic explosion.
DEEPWATER HORIZON gets off to a sluggish start, and even though I was interested in this story, because I knew what it was about, the film didn’t grab my attention. The early scenes with Mike and his family were okay, and the ensuing arguments between Jimmy and the company were certainly interesting, but there’s a whole rig full of people, and we don’t really get to know many of the characters at all. Before the explosion, most of the exposition was simple and dull.
Once the explosion occurs, things pick up, but that being said, for a disaster movie, none of the scenes really wowed me. Most of the action occurs at a rapid fire pace, and the camera is in close, making it very difficult to see what’s going on. It also doesn’t help that the only character we’ve really gotten to know is Mike, so when the camera is on him, things are captivating, but whenever the action follows someone else, it’s like following a random red shirt on an episode of STAR TREK.
Director Peter Berg does an undistinguished job capturing the action. The film is begging for an establishing shot, seeing the scene unfold from a distance so we can have a sense of the scope of the tragedy. While there are some shots of Deepwater Horizon burning, for the bulk of the action, the camera is in way too close and it’s difficult to discern just what exactly is happening. There’s plenty of mud shooting around, plenty of men slipping and sliding, explosions, fire everywhere, people scrambling, but left out of the whole thing were my emotions. I didn’t know the people in this tragedy, and the movie suffered for it.
The film also does little with the actual Coast Guard rescue of these folks. We hardly see what happens at all. In SULLY, the rescue was one of the movie’s high points. Not so here.
The screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand was meh. I didn’t really like the background story of Mike and his family, as it didn’t add anything here. Again, to compare to SULLY, in that film, Tom Hanks’ character converses with his worried wife over the phone on several occasions, but those conversations moved the plot forward, as they gave Hanks’ character opportunities to question his actions. The scenes here between Mike and his wife Felicia do not move the plot forward. They only stall the story.
The dialogue was flat and uninspiring, very generic, except for the one sequence where Mike gets in Andrea’s face and really lays it on her as to why they are going to survive. It’s also Wahlberg’s best moment in the movie. The best dialogue belongs to Kurt Russell’s Jimmy, but once the explosion hits, Jimmy takes a back seat to Mike in the story.
Matthew Michael Carnahan was also one of the screenwriters on WORLD WAR Z (2013), a film I liked a bit more than DEEPWATER HORIZON.
Mark Wahlberg is fine here as Mike. It’s the type of role Wahlberg can play in his sleep, at this point. His performance is good enough to carry this movie, except that he really doesn’t have a lot of potent scenes in this one. His best scene comes near the end when he pushes the panicked Andrea to survive.
Actually, my favorite performance in the movie belonged to Kurt Russell as Jimmy. He really brings Jimmy to life, and you feel from the get-go that Jimmy takes his job seriously and that he will not compromise the lives of his crew. We’ve been seeing more of Russell in the movies lately, and I hope this trend continues. The only drawback is that most of Russell’s screen time here occurs before the explosion.
Kate Hudson is largely wasted in a throwaway role as Mike’s wife Felicia. John Malkovich is okay as one of the cost-cutting meanies from the company, but he’s not really in this one a whole lot.
On the contrary, Gina Rodriguez is very good as Andrea Fleytas, the woman who helms the controls on Deepwater Horizon. The rest of the cast are little more than interchangeable cardboard cutouts.
The strongest thing DEEPWATER HORIZON has to offer is the true story on which it is based. This is reiterated during the movie’s end credits, when we see the names and photographs of the men killed during the explosion.
But source material alone isn’t enough to make a powerful movie. A film needs a strong storytelling component, generated by creative directing and a sharp script. DEEPWATER HORIZON has neither.
As such, in spite of its gripping story, it struggles to stay afloat.