You could make a tasteless, true story disaster movie marathon with Deepwater Horizon, World Trade Center (2006), United 93 (2006), Captain Phillips (2013) and to a lesser extent Sully (2016). You could also include Lone Survivor (2013) and the upcoming Patriots Day (later this year). Those last two movies, along with Deepwater were directed by Peter Berg and starring Mark Wahlberg.
We keep making these movies because they’re true stories with real heroes. That point was really driven home with Sully as the point of the film was that he was a hero but was he really? (Spoiler: He was)
In Deepwater Horizon, Mark Wahlberg is Mike Williams, a technician on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. We begin by meeting his beautiful wife (Kate Hudson) and adorable child. Then Berg somewhat cleverly decides to give the necessary exposition to the daughter, as she demonstrates (through the guise of a school assignment about her father) what he does at the oil rig by puncturing a can of coke and pouring honey through a straw. The point is this: They don’t drill oil, but instead they make the hole in the ground and then pump it full of honey (in the daughter’s version at least) to make sure oil doesn’t come rushing out. Then, just in case you forgot this was a disaster movie, the coke bursts through the straw, like oil gushing into the sky.
So the beginning is very Hollywood-esque. Beautiful people with a beautiful life that we don’t want to see harmed. It’s so formulaic, and it’s so grating. I wanted to make fun of this movie, and it’s not hard to at first. John Malkovich plays one of the BP Oil fatcat types, and he’s easy to hate because he soaks himself in that role so well. So we’re rooting for Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell) and Mike and the other blue collar workers.
Berg does a nice job with the script, giving each character a moment to show their personality and joke around. It didn’t feel too forced, and oftentimes these movies do feel forced. But things really accelerated when the rig was about to blow. It’s drawn out and suspenseful, and I was tense.
You keep expecting the rig to blow, but they push it out a little longer… then a little longer, and I think that’s because they know the story moves quickly once the rig explodes. Berg takes his time trying to show why this disaster happened and how BP was cutting corners.
Once the rig blows all hell breaks loose. I think I would’ve been able to dislike this movie more if I wasn’t so nervous the entire time. So it worked, then. It’s a good movie.
The movie also does a good job of hitting BP Oil, making sure you didn’t forget that they royally fucked up. So the casting of Malkovich and Buddy Garrity from Friday Night Lights worked terrifically. When you first see them, you want to hate them.
Normally this would be bothersome, because it’s a bit cheap to make the bad guy so overtly evil and disgusting and to make the good guy Mark Wahlberg. There’s a scene where Mike Williams says there are thousands of pieces of equipment that need fixing. Malkovich smiles slyly, leans back in his chair and calls Mike’s bluff, asking what it is specifically that needs fixing. He’s making light of a serious issue. Mike nonchalantly lists a host of problems in rapid fire succession. It’s a scene reminiscent of a joke in Ted in which Wahlberg runs through a long list of a stereotypically southern names.
In this scene he ends it by saying something along the lines of “and judging by how much you’re sweating, the air conditioning probably needs fixing too.” “BOOM!” we all said in unison in the theater as we figuratively tried to drop the same microphone Wahlberg dropped.
This movie, like The Other Guys (2010), appeals to your anger. It’d be like making a movie about Donald Trump and just stating all the bad stuff about him that we already know. Michael Moore is actually making a movie like that, it was just released, I believe.
Anyways, this movie is telling you “yeah, you’re right to be pissed” and even more than that, it’s saying “remember how pissed you are? You should still be that pissed.” It’s like The Big Short (2015) in that way.
And because this is the point, it gets away with certain cheap filmmaking tricks. It’s not easy to write a film with a character everyone likes and relates to through nuanced dialogue and action. But if you have the character “save a cat” or go up against someone who drools evil, like the BP guys, it makes it much easier. That’s why in many Hollywood movies you’ll have a scene in which the bad guy is unnecessarily bad. Like, he’ll just shoot a man dead so the audience knows he’s bad. It happened in The Magnificent Seven (2016). It’s why so many people think these movies don’t have good villains, because they’re just evil to be evil rather than because they have an actual objective that butts heads with the good guy’s objective. Then again, evil people like that do exist. Hitler, for example, or Caster Troy, or the BP Oil Guys. Even the devil is more nuanced than the BP guys. Here you look at them and think “they just care about the money.” You look at the devil and you might think “yeah he’s evil, but he’s always in God’s shadow, and that’s got to wear on him a bit.”
The point is, the bad guys are bad which makes the good guys easy to root for, and I was right there the whole time.
The set-pieces were nicely constructed, and the acting was great. I want to move on to something that fascinates me.
I just wrote about Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and part of what makes that movie so engaging and dramatic is that I’m waiting for the bomb to go off, figuratively. Judah is having an affair, the mistress has become a problem and he has to do something about it. The same situation exists in these disaster movies. We go to see this movie so we can see the rig explode. As horrible as it is, there’s no movie without it.
Deep Impact (1998) is about the asteroid, yet the asteroid doesn’t hit until the end. I think in Deepwater Horizon, they delayed the rig explosion as long as they could before it would become tiresome. The point is, these movies are built around the bomb going off. They figure, “the rig will explode, so what do we need to happen before that?” And they know we need to be introduced to each important character on both sides (good/bad), we need to know Wahlberg’s family, the power dynamic, who will be at fault. Basically we need the necessary information/exposition and we need to care about the people involved.
So the other movies I listed at the beginning operate like this too. There’s something horrifying and remarkably appealing about watching people we like go through hell, especially when we know not all of them will survive. Titanic, for example. It’s just about the boat sinking, and then they put the love story in there because we need to care about the people who are on the boat. I don’t think you needed that example, it just came to mind.
So why do we like this stuff? One movie came to mind when I was watching this. It’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie I saw on tv when I was 13, but I have no idea what it was called. In a particular scene (I missed most of the movie), Arnold is on a plane with a nerdy character. I forget how, but something happens and the nerdy character gets shot while still buckled into his seat. He’s a side character, I’m not sure how developed the character was, but he dies and the story keeps on chugging along. The actor was probably on set for only a couple days so Arnold never had time to learn his name. What I’m saying is I don’t think he was important.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I pictured him in the morning, getting out of bed, putting on his pants, brushing his teeth… and then getting shot. It was more horrifying than any movie death I could remember at that point. This poor guy…
And sometimes you get that sickening feeling watching these movies. It happened again when I watched Poseidon (2006), another Kurt Russell movie. In the movie Freddy Rodriguez, if I remember correctly, falls down an elevator shaft and is impaled on these spikes down below. It was so gruesome and disgusting, and I couldn’t forget it. There are many similar moments in space movies, because someone always dies horribly in space. That’s why I chose to live on Earth.
Anyways, it’s like putting your hand over the stove just to feel the heat. We’re never in danger while watching these movies, we just witness the danger. In the future we’ll have virtual reality movies or theaters that change the internal climate to reflect the film. “Come see the remake of the The Poseidon Adventure! And bring your bathing suits!” Because, I’m sure you realize, when the boat turns upside down and water floods in, the theater will fill up to waste level with water. It will be like the 3D movie craze.
So many shows, even the news, also play on this urge audiences have to hear about horrible stuff. “This week on Dateline NBC, a woman who had it all and then was stabbed, shot, hung, stripped naked and stabbed.” That’s when you get the popcorn and sit in, all the while thinking “I’m glad I’m nice and cozy.”
Hell, that’s what I was thinking the entire time I watched HBO’s The Night Of.
So, I ask again, what is it about this kind of stuff? What’s the line between honoring an event and taking advantage of it for financial gain? This movie, like many, tries to focus on the heroes and the villains. The point is to show it could have been avoided, and here were the people who fought to survive. Most of these movies try to show the heroism in the face of danger, and that’s well and good, but it still feels a little dirty to me.
At the end of this movie they show the names and photos of the 11 people who died, and it’s an emotional sequence, just the photos, names and sad music. I don’t know. I guess I felt dirty after watching this, as if I was more on the side of the BP guys because I knew the rig would explode, and I was, in fact, eating popcorn. God, I feel gross.
Well it was suspenseful and entertaining, yet full of sadness. I’ll probably see the next one of these movies too.
Last thing I wanted to touch on is Peter Berg’s style. He often wears button-down collared shirts with open-toed sandals, and a–okay, bad joke, sorry.
Peter Berg made his biggest mark with the movie and then television show Friday Night Lights. I love both the movie and especially the show. He does a good job painting a portrait of these tender, vulnerable but also tough characters. In the show, there’s Coach Taylor, his wife Tami, Matt Saracen and Tim Riggins. He starts with a one sentence description of these character types, and then he digs in to show you the humans underneath. There never seemed to be any true villains in that show, but that might be because there was time to explore all the characters. That show is phenomenal, and you should watch it if you haven’t.
So he likes the little moments, and there are some good ones in Deepwater Horizon but it still feels formulaic because he has to hurry through it. It’s not easy to introduce about a dozen relevant characters and give them a moment to make you care for them, but Berg does an admirable job.
In terms of cinematography, he uses a lot of handheld close ups that act as the jabs to the big hook of his large and long landscape shots. The handheld style starts to wear thin a little, particularly when the camera’s so close that in the theater Mark Wahlberg’s face is suddenly thirty feet tall and bouncing around. So I think he could cutback on the close up, but I also think it’s a symptom of his effort to make these characters feel real, like you’re watching a documentary. The problem is that when he makes movies, shown on a large screen, it’s like mixing ice cold and scalding hot water. We know it’s cinematic, we know this isn’t real, so showing Mark Wahlberg with a shaky camera on a large screen cancels itself out. It worked better with unknown actors on a smaller screen (tv).
But it’s important to care about the small moments because those so often get overlooked in movies like these.
I will go through the Peter Berg collection of movies in the near future, because I like tracking someones’ growth within their work, and I’m fascinated by collaborations. In this case Berg and Wahlberg have clearly developed a rapport.
I will be curious to know what the hell happened when he made Battleship (2012): Just a bad idea? or too much studio involvement? or was it Rihanna’s fault?