You know those memes that pop up on Facebook and have a heartbreaking picture of a uniformed officer or child or family that puts you in tears without really saying anything? Just the fact that something bad happened to them should be enough to make you well up and an explanation wouldn’t make a difference?
That meme manifested into a movie and called itself Deepwater Horizon.
The latest film from director Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg shares similar qualities to other films such as Lone Survivor (also Berg and Wahlberg), American Sniper, and more recently, Sully, in that it is less interested in what is on the inside, but what the outside says to you —meaning, it is incredibly manipulative of your emotions and expects you to react a specific way, turning your movie-watching tendencies robotic rather than human.
Deepwater Horizon tells the story of the men (and one woman played by Gina Rodriguez) who were on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in April 2010 when it exploded and caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history. It starts with Mike Williams (Wahlberg), a blue collar true American who has a wife and daughter and has to leave them for 21 days to go and work on the rig. He is joined by the rig’s manager, Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), and our lone lady, Andrea Fleytas (Rodriguez), along with more than 100 other workers.
Incidentally, a few officials from BP — the company who owns the rig — are aboard and led by Vidrine (John Malkovich) as they are upset with the fact that drilling has yet to commence after 43 days of being behind schedule.
It feels right that Peter Berg would be attached to working on projects following blue-collar workers as he directs with such a workman approach. It isn’t that he directs poorly, but he works so plainly that you sometimes forget that someone would be behind the camera. If the goal is to forget the director is there, then he may be the guy for you.
But more explicitly, he directs to evoke specific emotions from the audiences — digging into our patriotic tendencies to make us relate to the men and one woman on the rig. That shouldn’t be a negative to relate with the characters on screen, but in Berg’s work with Wahlberg, the mining of emotions feels more like an exploitation rather than an authentic examination.
In both Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon, Berg ends the movies with anthems blasting and images of the real-life families that were affected by the tragedies flash in front of you. This is moving — sure — but also makes the film feel like propaganda, orchestrating us to feel their emotions rather than an actual human experience. Of course any right-minded human would have sympathy for those who lost their lives in both events, but having their images placed in front of us as if we are being interrogated by a police detective seems almost cruel.
But what else are they going to do? The script sure isn’t doing them any favors.
For most of the first hour of the film, we are issued scene after scene of technical jargon from the crewmen on board — a cut to a control room as someone explains how a machine works followed by another cut to how the rig drives to another cut about proper protocol makes you think that the film is breaking its own protocol by being dreadfully boring.
Finally, the moment arrives and the rig explodes. The finale has spark, but never hit me as it should’ve. The closest thing it seemed like was the finale of Titanic as people tried to evacuate the ship, but Deepwater Horizon lacked the emotional tug of that film (sorry, Mark Wahlberg isn’t sacrificing any pieces of wood for Gina Rodriguez).
Wahlberg and Rodriguez do share a powerful exchange as they are about to be the last two off the rig, but it also stole from her character and made her weaker than she appeared at the beginning of the movie and undermined the only female character we had. People died aboard the rig, but we never really felt it.
Berg shoots the finale so quickly and the actual mayhem almost seems too contained — and that shouldn’t be a quality of an action movie. It makes the moment at the end with the pictures feel even more detached as those people came and went in the movie so quickly that there is no real processing of what happened — again, they just feed us what we need to feel.
Deepwater Horizon wants us to feel, but doesn’t know how to do it. Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg have specialized in average, macho disaster dramas that almost insult you as an audience member. It has its thrills and a few moments that move you, but for the most part, the manipulation becomes too much and you just want to dive in the water and pretend it never happened.