Friday, January 20, 2017

Deepwater Horizon (Summit Entertainment, Participant Media, di Bonaventura Pictures, Lionsgate, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was actually a surprisingly disappointing movie: Deepwater Horizon, directed by Peter Berg from a story by Matthew Sand and a script by him and Matthew Michael Carnahan based on a New York Times news article by David Rohde and Stephanie Saul in turn based on the infamous blowout of the exploratory oil well Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast on April 20, 2010. The central characters of the film are technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) and his immediate supervisor on the rig, Jimmy Harrell (a surprisingly grizzled Kurt Russell), along with a woman driller named Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) and a couple of bad guys from the companies sponsoring the drilling, British Petroleum and TransOcean (the company that actually owned the drilling rig), Kaluza (Brad Leland) and Vidrine (John Malkovich), who refuse to let Harrell and Williams do the tests on the cement that’s supposed to be the last line of protection against a blowout because they don’t want to spend either the money or the time on this last precaution to make sure the well is safe. The movie I would have liked to see about the Deepwater Horizon is about what happened after the well blew out, 11 people died and BP and TransOcean spent the next 87 days trying to figure out how to put out the fire that was consuming the rig and stop the release of billions of barrels of oil from the failed well.

Instead the film they actually made focused on the operation of the Deepwater Horizon and the first day of the incident, and the main focus was the personal heroism of Harrell and Williams in putting their own lives at risk to evacuate the Deepwater Horizon safely before any more people died. Deepwater Horizon (the movie) contains some awesomely beautiful shots of the actual undersea drilling (the rig was designed to be “semi-submersible” and was essentially a barge — it was built in South Korea and moved across the Pacific to Freeport, Texas and thereafter into the Gulf of Mexico for use — and it was designed to drill 3 ½ miles under the ocean’s surface, the deepest oil well ever dug) and the fire that consumed the rig, but they’re stuck in to the middle of some of the sorriest scenes of human activity ever filmed. Aside from the principals, the people in the movie blur into an indistinguishable mass of macho guys, all talking at once in the most incomprehensible sound mix ever released on a major film since the first version of Heaven’s Gate and spouting so much oil-drillers’ jargon the film needs a lot of explanatory titles just to give the non-oil driller audience some clue about what’s supposed to be going on and what in fact is going wrong with what’s going on. This film’s script is more elaborately “planted” than just about anything made since the 1940’s, and while I generally like the way writers in the classic Hollywood era set up clues for how the plot was going to turn, this movie overdid it — especially in the early scene in which Mike Williams and his wife (Kate Hudson) watch as their daughter prepares a school project about “My Dad’s Job,” and to illustrate it she upends a Coca-Cola can, stabs it open with a small pipe, then pours honey down the pipe (the honey represents the “drilling mud” poured down an oil well to put pressure on the oil and get it to come out) and seals it with a pencil to show how a well is capped — only the combined pressure of the soda and the honey in the Coke can causes a burst that prefigures the real-life well blowout to come.

Deepwater Horizon is apparently the second of at least three movies in which Peter Berg has directed Mark Wahlberg in stories of survival based on real life — the first was Lone Survivor (2013), about a raid in Afghanistan against a Taliban leader, and the most recent is Patriots’ Day (2017), a story about the real-life bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013 — and though there are stray bits of anti-corporate commentary in Deepwater Horizon (which reminded Charles of the 1943 German film Titanic, which pitted a lone German-born ship’s officer against the captain and the head of the White Star Line, on whose pursuit of a world’s record Atlantic crossing the disaster is blamed), for the most part it’s just another war movie, albeit one in which the good guys are coming under fire from a force of nature they’ve inadvertently unleashed rather than a human enemy. Deepwater Horizon comes at a curious juncture in the Zeitgeist — there are a lot of ironies in this, of all films, being the last one Charles and I watched together in the pre-Trump era — given that like the rest of the Republican Party, Donald Trump seems not only opposed to but actually revolted by the whole concept of renewable energy. If there’s one thing Deepwater Horizon does right, it’s how well it dramatizes the whole association between oil drilling and the macho concepts of manliness and virtue, a concept that’s at the heart of the American Right’s idea of energy policy. Real men, the mentality holds, get their energy by doing vivid, intense, life-threatening things like drilling for oil or digging for coals; it’s only feminized wimps that hang solar panels or put up windmills — and given how determined the Trump administration is to focus America’s energy future almost exclusively on fossil fuels, it’s likely its policies will (to paraphrase Che Guevara’s famous line) create two, three, a thousand Deepwater Horizon incidents.