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Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016 03:25 pm

Berg Too Close for Comfort with “Horizon”

On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon, a semi-submersible offshore oil drilling rig suffered a catastrophic disaster when high pressure sent thousands of gallons of oil into the air when a system of blowout preventers failed to ease or staunch the flow of the petroleum from beneath the surface of the ocean bed off the coast of Louisiana.  11 workers were killed as a result, the rig sank two days later and the continued flow of oil – which lasted 87 days and resulted in 210 millions gallons of crude to being dumped in the ocean – was the worst disaster in oil drilling history.

Mike Williams fights for his life in Deepwater Horizon.
Courtesy Summit Entertainment

Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon takes an unflinching look at the disaster, turning this adventure into social commentary by examining the relationship between BP Oil and the workers that were hired to man their rig and drill at record depths. Within the film’s first 15 minutes we see the first of many confrontations between the White Collar penny-pinchers and the Blue Collar good ole boys who find themselves at the mercy of their pursuit of profit.  It’s a conflict that’s repeated often and provides the backbone for this working class anthem, as Berg never allows subtlety to stand in his way from driving home his message again and again. 

The casting of the movie couldn’t be more spot on as Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell are on board playing the working class Joes in the spotlight.  The former is Mike Williams, a devoted family man who finds himself in over his head as the rig he’s been put in charge to maintain is falling apart around his ears.  It isn’t that he and his men can’t get it up to ship shape; they just aren’t given the time and resources to do so.  Jimmy Harrell’s (Russell) complaints about safety measures being ignored also fall on deaf ears and before either one of them can say, “I told you so,” the Deepwater Horizon is in flames, the result of a safety test that goes horribly wrong. 

The screenplay from Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand is an exercise in economy and efficiency and it quickly gives us the necessary background for all the players as well as just enough information so that we might follow the most rudimentary mechanics behind the disaster. Kate Hudson as Williams’ wife, Gina Rodriguez as bridge supervisor Andrea Fleytas and John Malkovich as corporate shirt Vidrine all make an impact during the brief, albeit well-written scenes they have during the film’s first hour.

Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) feels something is amiss in Deepwater Horizon.
Courtesy Summit Entertainment

Berg’s “you-are-there” aesthetic, which worked so well in Friday Night Lights and Lone Survivor seems a natural fit for this material and for a while, it succeeds in providing an intimacy to its characters and their environment that’s compelling.  However, the director’s penchant for tight shots and his insistence on using handheld cameras winds up being too much of a good thing once the disaster strikes.  While the intent is to put the viewer in the heart of the chaos, most of the time the result is a confusing visual muddle that generates frustration rather than suspense. Characters are too hard to pick up and follow, much of the action is obscured and Berg’s unsteady camera fails to focus on the victims at hand.  Equally frustrating is the sound mix, which is a mess, rendering simple conversations hard to follow, especially early on.  The actors’ southern and Cajun accents certainly don’t help.

Be that as it may, there’s no question that the Deepwater Horizon  story is an arresting one.  Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Clint Eastwood’s Sully, this movie also champions those who do their work with honor and integrity, only to find themselves questioned by those who fail to recognize the value of their labor or knowledge.  In the end, despite Berg’s confused visual approach, the heroism of those who survived the Deepwater Horizon disaster shines through.

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