There’s a tiny moment in the first 20 minutes of “Deepwater Horizon” — a three-second interior shot of Mark Wahlberg’s character, Mike Williams, driving down a Louisiana highway — that embodies everything that the film is trying to do. It may go unnoticed by most, but there’s something just that much different about the shot’s tilted angle in the backseat, natural swaying motion, close up of Wahlberg and vivid color palette that imbues the Louisiana setting and its characters with incredible life.
“Deepwater Horizon,” which brings Wahlberg and director Peter Berg back together after “Lone Survivor” — and before the upcoming “Patriot’s Day” — recounts the 2010 explosion on the oil rig of the same name that took 11 lives and caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history. The disaster, which the film posits as a result of careless executive decision, forced chief electrician Williams, crew boss “Mr. Jimmy” (Kurt Russell), rig navigator Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) and many more into an unthinkable situation, resulting in these crewmembers’ unfathomable heroics.
The film’s first hour, which takes place before the disaster, is pulsing with life. The script’s dialogue, Berg’s construction of conversation and the actors’ chemistry with each other all inject blood into the film’s flowing veins. But the sense of a human energy extends well beyond that.
Each facet of Berg’s direction is phenomenal. The cinematography is flowing and swaying, consisting mainly of handheld shots that place the audience in the physical space of the rig/ship. The editing is fluid and smooth, and the depth and layers of sound are fully engrossing. The attention to detail gets down to the minute with the actors projecting a naturalism of both word and gesture within their environment. Finally, the film roars along at a rapid pace, always full of lively interaction.
And that’s exactly what all of these aspects create: an incredible sense of life. The viewers do not get much more than a few minutes with Wahlberg’s Williams, his wife (Kate Hudson) and their daughter (Stella Allen), but because of the vivacity of the filmmaking itself, they don’t need much more than that to have full investment. The same goes for the crew on the rig. Sometimes, the audience doesn’t even get their names, but the characters’ fiery rapport, especially Dylan O’Brien’s, immediately places viewers as another among them.
This setup proves to be even more brilliant as the film enters its second hour of disaster and the filmmaking drastically shifts from its previous sense of life to a perspective of the severe chaos bigger than that life. Berg’s direction opts to create a sensory overload of terror. The vivid color disappears for the black of a smoke- and oil-filled sky and the orange of a towering flame. The natural charisma of every actor disappears for an unknowing panic. The shots and editing that capture the ridiculous scope of the explosion are jarring.
It’s in this juxtaposition of vibrancy in the first hour next to complete and utter horror in the second hour that makes the audience passionately root for the crew to survive, to cower at every obstacle that they face, to sink into their seats whenever someone doesn’t make it.
Berg carries the second half’s style into the first scene back on land. As Wahlberg’s Williams and the rest of the survivors walk through a hotel in the immediate aftermath, the shaky camera and removed sound convey that the fright is not quite over. But, yet again, in one of the simplest shots of Wahlberg sobbing on the floor of his hotel room as his wife and daughter run in, humanity is restored and tears are earned.
The only place where the film falters is in split seconds of unnecessary excess during the chaos, a tendency across much of Berg’s career.
But other than that, “Deepwater Horizon” is an affirmation of life and the will to live. Centered on Wahlberg’s electricity, the film, with impressive technical efforts, touts the human spirit as our savior in the most disastrous of moments.