Thursday, September 29, 2016

Review: "Deepwater Horizon"

There are a lot of ways you could have attacked the story of Deepwater Horizon: emblem of corporate corruption, biggest oil disaster in world history, one selfless hero saving the day, etc. Director Peter Berg and screenwriters Matthew Sand and Matthew Michael Carnahan took the most obvious, but probably also the most dramatically effective route, turning “Deepwater Horizon” into a big-budget disaster flick.

The 2010 explosion of the Transocean oil rig spewed 210 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in massive environmental catastrophe whose effects are still being felt today. Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell play the leaders who struggle to stop the crisis and save lives.

An effective crew of supporting actors make up the chorus of other victims, notably Ethan Suplee, Gina Rodriguez and Dylan O’Brien. John Malkovich and James DuMont provide the villains, sniveling corporate honchos hanging around behind the workers, demanding that safety measures by shortcut to maximize profits.

The film, which is based on a detailed reconstruction of events by the New York Times, is viscerally gripping -- once the action gets going.

Until then, it’s a barely comprehensible mishmash of industry jargon and manly chest-puffing. The sound mix on the version I saw was poor, so it’s often hard to comprehend the dialogue. (Malkovich’s Louisiana accent, slathered on heavy like sugar on beignets, doesn’t help.)

Once the blowout of the drill occurs, seeping gas that turns the entire rig into an inferno, the film finds its footing and its verve. The rest of the way is a moment-by-moment banquet of terror and bravery, as men (and a woman or two) struggle to keep the rig from floating off course, snapping the line sunk deep into the ocean floor.

Wahlberg’s Mike Williams is chief electric technician, which makes him the top safety advocate onboard. Russell plays Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell, the revered rig chief who commands the respect of his blue-collar crew. They’re both old-school film hero types, taciturn and direct, who believe in doing a job right rather than half-assing it and leaving a mess for the next guy.

But the construction of this project is already 43 days past schedule -- “the well from hell,” the crew dubs it -- which means millions in lost profits to the BP executives, who have come to pay a “friendly” visit. Ostensibly they’re there to laud Harrell and his team for their exemplary safety record. (No Hollywood hoke here.) But their real purpose is to push things along and cut corners.

“Hope ain’t a tactic,” Mike warns, to deaf ears.

The conflict quickly leads to disaster, as a geyser of mud, oil and gas storms up the line, resulting in back-breaking explosions that killed 11 crew. Kate Hudson plays Wahlberg’s wife, doing the usual disaster-movie-wife thing, making frantic calls and providing an emotional presence amid the storm.

Berg fills his screen with impressive blooms of fire, and accompanied with the near-constant impact of shrapnel raining down like bullets, it makes for a truly harrowing hellscape of death and destruction.

“Deepwater Horizon” accomplishes several things well, including rendering how the accident unfolded understandable for a general audience. Investigations have concluded it was a scenario in which virtually everything that could go wrong, did.

The film also vividly chronicles the peril the crew members faced, including the often competing impulses to do their jobs or save their own necks. A lot of people have a negative view of the oil industry, often well-deserved, but the movie uncovers not a small measure of nobility underneath the grimy surface.

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