Movie Review: “Deepwater Horizon”

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We’re entitled to a little skepticism when a movie titled “Deepwater Horizon” pitches itself as about “the heroes” of the worst oil spill disaster in U.S. history.

Somebody, a lot of somebodies, screwed up. The consequences were dire for the environment and deadly for many of the working class Joes the film depicts.

But as all hell is breaking loose on the drilling ship way offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, you see a name tag, Burkeen, and the guy wearing it (Jason Kirkpatrick). The rig has had a blowout that’s turned into an inferno, and the survivors’ only way off is by lifeboats that a burning, teetering crane is almost sure to destroy.

The crane operator, Aaron Dale Burkeen, sees that, and even as his mates are yelling “What are you DOING?”, clambers up behind the controls and renders it harmless at the cost of his own life.

And that’s when you realize, maybe we don’t know the story here.

Peter Berg’s film is a Mark Walhberg/Kurt Russell action picture that takes you inside the exploding rig, with sound effects so real that you’ll hunch down in your seat to dodge the rivets and debris shrieking past your ears.

If has a villain — BP, a multi-national multi-billion dollar corporation only too eager to take shortcuts — and the villain is personified by John Malkovich as the guy in charge of the drilling, a drawling Louisianan determined to get this “hole from hell” back on budget. He’s authorized skipping a crucial pressure test that rig boss Jimmy Harrell (Russell) and electrician and eyewitness to this all Mike Williams (Wahlberg) are shocked to discover when they return to the ship for their weeks-long shift.

“No mud, no flow. We got to go!” Vidrine Cajun-coos, and so they do.

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Berg and the screenwriters set up a neat class conflict, cavalier bosses worried only about their higher-ups vs. the working men and woman, Andrea Flytes (Gina Rodriguez), one of the pilots steering the “ship” to keep it over the bore-hole, who suffer the consequences.

Wahlberg’s Mike is an ex-Marine with a wife (Kate Hudson) and kid and an ex-military way of looking at BP’s wishful thinking, which he calls the “hope as a tactic” delusion.

“Hope ain’t a tactic, Don.”

Yes, the foreshadowing is overt — not subtle. As in “Sully,” we know what’s about to happen. But unlike that true story, we don’t know the specifics, and Berg recreates both the massive rig (“Anything that big ought to be made by God.”) and its state, held together by “band-aids and bubble-gum,” mud-covered crews overworked and disaster lurking.

The chaos of the blow-out and specifics of the injuries and fatalities are as harrowing as any action picture, and too close to real for comfort. We don’t get to invest in many characters, and we await that moment when the star yells at somebody “I am NOT gonna die on this rig!”

But Berg (“Lone Survivor,””The Kingdom,””The Rundown”) finds the humor in the banter of clock-punchers, the eye-rolling sarcasm that’s your only defense when somebody in a higher pay grade gives orders that are an accident waiting to happen.

He makes “Deepwater Horizon” a disaster movie that works by putting us there, letting us second-guess along with the experts and shake our heads that justice and responsibility for the guilty is different when they’ve got the money and the backing of a gigantic company to soften that blow.

And Berg reminds us that even in the worst disaster, people can be selfless, heroic, and in the case of Aaron Dale Burkeen, professional even if those who gamble with their fates are not.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for prolonged intense disaster sequences and related disturbing images, and brief strong language

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Kate Hudson, John Malkovich,  Gina Rodriguez, Ethan Suplee
Credits: Directed by Peter Berg, script by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand. A Summit release.

Running time: 1:47

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