Friday 3 February 2017

On DVD: "Deepwater Horizon"

Since the turn of the last century, the actor-turned-director Peter Berg has intelligently and assiduously consolidated his CV with the kind of films that traditionally play to full houses across the American Midwest: tales of blue-collar endurance and heroism, pitched with total sincerity towards those working-class audiences who - God knows - could do with a little escapism (and recognition) come the weekend. We might just be able to forget Berg's directorial debut, 1998's aggressively grabby black comedy Very Bad Things, and the botched blockbusters Hancock and Battleship; his heart was surely rather more in 2004's series-spawning gridiron drama Friday Night Lights and 2013's punchy war tale Lone Survivor. Two decades after first moving behind the camera, Berg now stages his biggest-scale productions yet with back-to-back retellings of true-life survival stories: Deepwater Horizon, centring on the employees of the oil rig that exploded off the Louisiana coast in April 2010, and Patriots Day, concerning the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

We'll see the latter soon enough (it opens in the UK in three weeks); the former emerged on DVD earlier this week, and shapes up as an old-school disaster movie the minute oilman Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) demonstrates to his young daughter exactly what daddy does for a living using a shaken can of Coca-Cola and a straw. The resulting show-and-tell almost inevitably leaves a sugary mess over the dining room floor, but it's left to mom Kate Hudson to clean up; the crewmen - headed by chief mechanic Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell, with significant 'tache) - are helicoptering out to the rig, where they will spend much of the film's first act muttering about a cement test that may or may not have been done, and which may be necessary to prevent a system failure that we're only too aware is in the pipeline. That failure - in true disaster movie fashion - will be signalled by a shot of a single ominous bubble floating to the surface from the ocean's lower depths, the small foreboding the catastrophic; for worse, as we now know, was to follow.

We're headed towards a big bang and a towering inferno - the film's Dolby-stretching raisons d'être - yet the screenplay, by Matthew Sand and Matthew Michael Carnahan, allows us to feel some of the physical and interpersonal stresses that mounted on this rig long before the eventual crash and burn. The film opens with audio testimony sourced from the inquiry into the rig explosion, and goes on to point a sure and steady finger at those penny-penching, corner-cutting BP executives who were ultimately deemed responsible: these are represented on screen by a Cajun-accented John Malkovich, pressuring everybody to stop testing and instead get on with the more immediately lucrative business of mining black gold. This strikes me as an interesting direction for bigger-budget studio entertainments to go in, returning us to a potentially radical path quietly abandoned by safe-playing producers after 1999's The Insider went after Philip Morris: the widescreen critique of corporate policymakers. And then: boom. And boom. And boom again.

Having somehow survived Battleship with his eardrums and faculties intact, Berg is now technician enough to make the knock-on effects of the initial explosion properly dynamic as well as visceral: the rivets flying from one side of the screen to the other, the fiery chaos that ensues in the wake of an oil-soaked electrical fan being switched on. Yet time and again, the camera returns to the heroism of men like Mike Williams and Mr. Jimmy, the coastguard and the firefighters - those individuals who turned up, did their job and fulfilled a duty, long after BP failed in theirs. There are concessions to formula, such as Wahlberg's efforts to transport a fossilised dinosaur tooth back home to his girl, while shepherding the one female crew member (Gina Rodriguez) to safety. Yet any wobbliness is minimised by very sound and solid construction: these days, Berg not only has the production design at his disposal to build a supremely realistic oil rig, but the budget to blow it up in fine style. Here is another of 2016's cautionary tales about what can happen when we no longer listen to the experts.

Deepwater Horizon is now available on DVD through Lionsgate.

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