Movies based on real events have an inherent problem, especially if those events unfolded only a few years ago. The filmmaker must find a way to engage an audience who knows the outcome.
Director Peter Berg gets past the familiarity problem with his “Deepwater Horizon” by playing up the human element of the major players. By the time the explosion on the oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico unfolds in massively grand style, there is real reason to be concerned about the people facing a hell on Earth.
The connection is made through the strong performances by Mark Wahlberg as Mike Williams, the chief electrician on the oil rig, and Kate Hudson, who plays his wife. They seem to have a great bond in the early scenes where Berg takes time to establish his players, and modern technology plays a role as the disaster strikes while the pair talk via the internet.
The other two strong performances come from Kurt Russell, lovingly known as Mr. Jimmy by the crew, and Gina Rodriguez as Andrea Fleytas, the person controlling the rig and keeping it in place.
Russell brings a feeling of ancient wisdom to the performance that gives the production a strong central figure. He gets across the frustration he feels at continuing work on the rig when his natural instincts tell him something is not right. This role could have come across as the standard hardened leader, but Russell plays the part with equal doses of strength and humanity.
Rodriquez proves her work on “Jane the Virgin” is no fluke. She gives her role a real three-dimensional feel as she goes from a great strength as one of the leaders battling to fight to deep vulnerability in the face of almost certain death.
The biggest problem is how Berg ends up making the bigwigs from the oil company come across so villainous they do everything melodramatically except twirl the end of a mustache. That’s especially true with John Malkovich as BP executive Donald Vidrine, whose smugness is enough to make any rig want to explode.
There’s no question who provides the evil for this story. Berg works harder than necessary to make sure that point is driven home – like a nail being hit with a sledgehammer.
It’s a small flaw in what is both an entertaining action film and an engaging people story. The destruction of the rig is as impressive and nerve-racking as any summer popcorn movie.
Making sure both elements have equal time is the sign of a skilled filmmaker. It’s also the correct way to build a movie where the events and ending have been so heavily documented.
Berg takes the audience from reliving the anger when the story originally broke to feeling the heat of an inferno so large the fact anyone survived is remarkable. And he makes us care about every person working on the rig.