Well, maybe vice-chief. Berg's current leading man of choice is Mark Wahlberg, our great nation's consensus avatar of blue-collar heroism. In Lone Survivor, the fact-based story of a kill mission in Afghanistan gone awry, Berg put Wahlberg through an especially brutal ringer, chronicling how a brave solider used his strength and his smarts to avoid seemingly certain death. Now the director and his star have returned with Deepwater Horizon, a meticulous reenactment of the explosion (and resulting oil spill) that destroyed a rig off the coast of Louisiana in 2010. The names may have changed, but Berg's template remains the same: Deliberately establish the players and the setting, then scrupulously illustrate how everything gets blown to hell.
If that makes this movie sound simplistic, it is, but only from a storytelling perspective. If anything, Deepwater Horizon suffers from a surfeit of detail. Gruff, no-nonsense characters are constantly throwing around nautical jargon, yammering about negative pressure tests, kill lines, drill pipes, and blowout preventers. It's complex, inside-baseball stuff, though Berg cleverly attempts to orient his lay audience, not through ponderous voiceover, but through an early expository scene where a 10-year-old girl rehearses a presentation for her science class, cheerfully chirping about what her daddy does for a living. That daddy is Mike Williams (Wahlberg), a simple man who lives an enviably simple life, and who is happily married to
Sound familiar? It should, and not just because this story was headline news. Just last month, Clint Eastwood gave us Sully, a dramatization of a near-calamity that artificially pitted the humble heroism of a brilliant pilot against the institutional rot of a corrupt bureaucracy. Deepwater Horizon follows a similar blueprint, but to Berg's credit, the conflict here feels more genuine, and the outrage more justified. The facts help; it's difficult to conceive of a more lopsided moral battle than the one presented here, which finds a crew of industrious American laborers chafing under the yoke of a venal oil company. But Berg also uses sly casting to personalize this righteous struggle. Essentially, the thrust of Deepwater Horizon—its causal explanation for the disaster it depicts—comes down to a choice of who is more trustworthy, John Malkovich or Kurt Russell.
reincarnated Wyatt Earp, is practically a nationally recognized symbol of blunt, mustachioed integrity. (He even has experience in this sort of maritime disaster movie, serving as the hardy protagonist in Wolfgang Petersen's Poseidon.) Here he plays Jimmy Harrell, the head of the Transocean crew—his subordinates adorably call him "Mr. Jimmy"—and an intuitive professional who puts the safety of his employees above all else. His caution puts him at odds with Don Vidrine (Malkovich), a smarmy BP bigwig who waves off Mr. Jimmy's concerns and pointedly reminds the drillers that there's an ocean of oil under their feet, and they're being paid to go get it. So I ask again: Whom should you trust?
Deepwater Horizon's vilification of BP may feel like a lazy device employed by Berg's screenwriters (Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand), but it's a satisfying one, and Malkovich—in a deliciously hammy, Cajun-accented performance—sells it effortlessly, making Vidrine unnervingly intelligent as well as shockingly amoral. His freighted bickering with Mr. Jimmy is the highlight of the film's first hour, which plays like an extended setup to a horror movie. The muggy Louisiana air is thick with foreshadowing as well as humidity, as Berg systematically walks us through the series of financially motivated events that will lead to the rig's inevitable explosion. His filmmaking is by no means subtle—repetitive underwater shots of mud rumbling beneath the rig suggest a sinister monster similar to the POV menace in The Evil Dead—but it's effective at building tension, even if we all know what happens next.
Part of the problem may lie in Berg's obsession with verisimilitude. I have faith that he has rendered the terrible destruction of the Deepwater Horizon with painstaking veracity, and if I were an oil rigger, I imagine that I would appreciate his diligence. But as a blissfully ignorant moviegoer, I am less concerned with historical accuracy than with visual clarity, and in focusing so myopically on recreating the rig's collapse, Berg has failed to dramatize it with the necessary filmmaking logic or spatial coherence. It is telling that the movie's most enjoyable and suspenseful scene—in which Mike and Andrea must ascend the rig before leaping off it to avoid the fire belching below—is also its least plausible. (It is tantalizing to wonder how the project's original director, J.C. Chandor, might have tackled these scenes, given the bracing lucidity he brought to the genre elements of A Most Violent Year; Chandor bowed out due to creative differences.)
I didn't, but I do mourn the apparent demise of Berg's studious craft. Early next year, he and Wahlberg will be returning with Patriots' Day, in what appears to be yet another bicep-powered dramatization of a recent American tragedy. That may be of questionable taste, but I won't rush to judgment, and besides, I haven't yet given up on Berg. He's not perfect, but he's better than this.