PETER BERG is an odd duck. He’s often written off as a journeyman director—an anti-auteur without any specific style or calling, but he also tends to get lumped into the “style over substance” gang with the likes of Michel Bay and McG. I don’t think either of those interpretations are quite on the money, and it’s telling that you can find such a wide difference of opinion when looking over his filmography. This is the guy who brought us both the working-class gem Friday Night Lights (both the film and the show), and also the movie version of Battleship in which aliens try to sink Liam Neeson’s battleship (Battleship).
Berg’s a proficient, inventive action director, as evidenced by 2003’s criminally underrated The Rundown, but he’s also not above a bland, Call of Duty-style counter-terrorism procedural like 2007’s The Kingdom. He did the “bros behaving badly” comedy about 10 years before The Hangover with Very Bad Things, and his superhero deconstruction flick Hancock was released just months after Iron Man in 2008. That’s an enormous range within the span of a decade—in style, quality, and willingness to take risks on unproven concepts.
So taking all of that into consideration, is Berg the best guy to tell the story of the Deepwater Horizon explosion? Well, yes and no: The players in disaster movies often seem like simple chess pieces on a board that’s about to be kicked over (and then set on fire, and then thrown into a volcano), but that’s not the case here. Kurt Russell and Mark Wahlberg are old pros at playing affable everymen thrust into improbably violent scenarios, and the rest of the cast feels similarly grounded. Berg knows when to sit back and let the slice of life stuff play out, and that makes up the first half of Deepwater Horizon. Aside from some awkward chunks of exposition on the workings of deepwater drilling, it all works pretty well.
Then there’s the second half of the film, when the high-explosive shit hits the multibillion-dollar fan, and that part works pretty well too. Berg manages to frame the orgiastic gouts of spurting flame and shrapnel on a human scale, which thankfully keeps the proceedings from feeling like a bloodless exercise in pyrotechnics. Most of Berg’s action shots have a person in the frame somewhere— you almost always know where characters are and how dearly each new detonation is going to cost them.
Where Deepwater Horizon fails is in knitting these two halves into a meaningful whole that’s worthy of the enormous spectacle. Real people died when the Deepwater Horizon exploded—real people who are named and depicted in this film, which makes it difficult to consume this piece of media purely on the basis of entertainment, or even education. There needs to be some sort of moral or emotional journey to justify all these big-screen explosions and adrenaline-inducing drama. Otherwise, we’re just sitting through a big-budget snuff film.
To Deepwater’s credit, there’s a respectfully framed and unusually lengthy epilogue, which details the real-world aftermath of the explosion. But as the names and pictures of the 11 oil workers who died began to fill the screen, people in my screening were already headed for the exits. That tells me that despite solid craftsmanship and good intentions, Deepwater Horizon falters under the weight of the very real, very recent history it depicts.