The tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon sits just abut the edge of our collective consciousness. It exists in a sort of nebulous state of something to remember and something to forget. Like most manmade natural disasters, the shame we all feel that it happened causes a sort of willful ignorance of its occurrence. Like a philandering spouse caught square in the act, all we can do is look down in despair, and hope we can just forget about it and move forward.
For the people on the Gulf Coast, however, head in the sand logic is not a luxury that can be afforded. For one thing, much of the sand along the Gulf Coast is still contaminated by the remnants of the largest oil spill in our nation’s history. For another, the tragedy of the Deepwater Horizon is a reminder of all that’s been lost in the years since the explosion and sinking of the massive vessel. Jobs have suffered, as fishermen were forced to release themselves of their livelihood following the poisoning of their stock. And the hardworking men and women of the oil industry were effected as the accident forced new scrutiny of their safety aboard these giant, oil seeking monuments to man’s hubris.
Part of the problem of understanding what, exactly, happened aboard the Deepwater Horizon is that the story is necessarily laced with industry gobbledygook that the layman can’t understand. Regular people don’t have the foundation necessary to parse through the lingo in order to get to the heart of what caused the explosion aboard the ship. Reading the reports and the results of the multiple inquiries is like traversing a labyrinth of unfathomable depth and increasing complexity. The ultimate success of Peter Berg’s (Lone Survivor) Deepwater Horizon is in its attempts to dumb down the issue so that it’s understandable to the masses.
Berg has always been a director that feels somewhat like a second-rate Michael Bay, and that vibe is out in force in Deepwater Horizon. Usually that would be an impediment to enjoying a movie—and it very nearly is here—but in this case, it almost seems a boon. Berg’s hamfisted style suits the film’s purpose almost perfectly—he’s a meathead director, telling stories to meatheads. Say what you will about his ability, Berg knows who his audience is, and he plays to them absolutely.
Deepwater Horizon frames the real life tragedy as the most base and basic of American cinematic form, the action set piece. It would be tempting to scoff at this as an outrageous debasing of the plight of those aboard the ship, but the simplistic angle allows Berg to present the story in a way that’s easy to digest, easy to watch, and holds the attention of those who otherwise might not care. Words and subtext are hard to follow, after all, but everyone understands big booms and heroes, both of which are featured heavily here.
Berg frames the story around engineer Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), a man beholden to his captain, Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell (Kurt Russell) and not the corporate moneymen behind his company, beautifully personified here by Vidrine (John Malkovich). Vidrine and his cohorts, eager to get their paws on all that oil, disregard signs of potential problems, and the warning of Mr. Jimmy, and push the crew to create a pump over a well that might be dangerous. In the process, they not only ruin Mr. Jimmy’s impeccable record for safety—for which he wins an award early in the film—but also set in motion a series of events that lead to the worst manmade natural disaster in American history.
It’s difficult to imagine that Berg could’ve pulled this off without playing to our more simple desires as moviegoers. The masses want digestibility, and Berg pre-chews everything he feeds to us to make it as easy as possible. Is it overly simplistic? You betcha! But simplicity is arguably needed here in order to get the point across. Deepwater Horizon very easily could’ve been a dialogue heavy examination of man’s hubris at toying with nature, but that belies a point many people still don’t understand about the tragedy. Berg, in his own uniquely overbearing way, boils it down to “greedy men want oil, ship goes boom.”
More to the point, by refusing to get bogged down by technicalities, Berg has framed the story in a way the honors both the survivors and the dead. There’s more than a fair amount of hero worship here, but that’s all the better. The men and women aboard the Deepwater Horizon put their lives on the line to ensure we are steady supplied with the blood of our society (the efficacy of our addiction to oil I’ll leave for better minds) and in our hemming and hawing and shame regarding the tragedy, we forget that we’re also failing to remember these brave people.
By turning the tragedy into a movie that’s reliant on the tropes and convention of action, Berg has indeed elevated these souls to the rank of hero. The approach may be shallow, but the effect is profound. While we may remember the images of black plumes rising above the Gulf, and perhaps remember the ensuing environmental crisis, these things come with a kind of cold-detachment that makes it easy to dehumanize the experience. Berg forces us to confront the reality of the Hell that we saw only on the periphery and, in doing so, accomplishes something that the news and official reports have consistently failed to get across: something close to real understanding.
Deepwater Horizon is now playing in theaters everywhere.