It’s no surprise to see how many actors like to work with the same directors over and over again. If you achieved a good performance with a director you believe gets you, of course you’ll keep going back to that well to see if it can produce similar results. Of course this can get a bit ridiculous, the amount of times Johnny Depp and Tim Burton linked up ended up being the subject of parody rather than great films, but the familiarity between director and actor usually produces great results. Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg are starting to have that sort of relationship, with Deepwater Horizon being their second time together, and their third film together Patriots Day being released later on this year. Can they be a formidable duo together?
The Deepwater Horizon is an oil rig being run by Transocean on behalf of BP and is set to start drilling again. Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg, Boogie Nights) is one of the men set to work on the rig. However things soon start to go wrong and after an equipment malfunction, the oil in the rig ignites, endangering the lives of everyone on board.
What I do appreciate is that the pacing is not manic throughout Deepwater Horizon. Even though this is based on real life, this was the BP oil spill that dominated the news during 2010 with images of various birds getting stuck in the oil spill probably being the thing that sticks in my mind, people are sick and are here for the big explosions and trying to work out which characters make it to the end. But Peter Berg (Lone Survivor) is smart and knows you won’t care at all if you just rush right to the big explosions depicted in the poster. So you get some time with all the characters and yes it is pretty obvious which ones are marked for death and which will live, but you get to know them enough to care when they do get killed. Most crucially, our central character of Mike gets plenty of depth, meaning we root for him throughout.
Of course you do need to give the film more depth than the usual action flick simply because this is a recent event that needs to be treat with care, especially as widows of the people killed in the Deepwater Horizon disaster are still out there and will still be dealing with their grief. And so that hour before everything goes bad is needed for the characters to develop, but also for the plot to develop. The film, like the rest of the world in 2010, makes no secret of the fact it is angry at BP for what happened. Not only does this film deliver that message well, though the film wasn’t successful enough for that rage to re-enter the mainstream, but it delivers it in a smart way that stops the film from feeling like a sermon. That’s an incredibly tough balance, just ask Ken Loach.
Of course eventually the big explosions and action does eventually happen, around the hour mark on my watch, and it is exactly what you’d expect. People seemingly dead get rescued in the nick of time, there’s a lots of running about, there’s some incredibly fierce looking fire animation. You even have a noble sacrifice, all cliché boxes are ticked. Obviously this section is pretty predictable, and it is one of the few problems the film has however major it is, but it does manage to pull it off. Maybe it’s because of the solid character work done before but even if it doesn’t feel fresh, it does feel exciting.
And there are indeed some great moments in it. The whole sequence starts with a massive, gruesome looking blow out and the film uses our prior knowledge that everything is about to explode to play with us. It builds up the tension, somehow making a pelican flying into the bridge of a boat into something that seriously plays with you heart. Again, this isn’t the most original thing in the world, but it is a smart way to lengthen a film that can’t realistically make the rig being set on fire and explode last as long as many of the set pieces present in other disaster films.
And as you’d expect, this is all backed up a number of good performances. No one here is doing anything spectacular, but they are adding extra emotion to scenes and are good at injecting their characters with a personality, disguising the fact many of them are set for the axe. And Wahlberg shows why Berg likes him so much. He’s not the greatest actor in the world, I think he gave up any sort of pretense of claiming that crown by appearing in The Happening, but what he is very talented at doing is making a character feel down to earth. That’s what Mike is in this film, down to earth guy who is just plain likable, and it’s Wahlberg who does that.
Disaster films are very tricky to pull off, especially with the trend to base them on real life events after Titanic practically printed money back in the 90s, but Deepwater Horizon manages to do it by remembering that while we are there for effects and explosions, we stay for the characters and meaningful relationships. And so because the film takes the time to build these up, we care and are engaged when the disaster begins. It’s not spectacular film making no, it is ridden with clichés and never tries to become something stunning, but it is what it is. A disaster film which aims to have a point. Can’t ask for more.