Rigged to explode!
The thorny issue, when dramatizing a real world disaster, is how to treat the material? The golden rule seems to be that the closer we are to the tragedy, chronologically speaking, the more reserved and reverent a take. So James Cameron, nearly a century removed from the Titanic disaster, thought he had licence to impose his own characters and melodramatic instincts on what occurred, in addition to employing “God’s eye” – who takes a step back from the chaos and unclean composition of the moment, to repackage the action in a style a modern audience can understand; wide-shots, flowing edits, action beats. On the other end of the spectrum there’s Paul Greengrass’s high fidelity approach. United 93 was sombre, matter-of-fact, and shot with documentary-like understatement. Use of score was minimal. This is tragedy packaged to foster the illusion that it speaks for itself. It’s coded as “real”. Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon, just six years out from the events depicted, is more Greengrass than Cameron, but that doesn’t mean he’s entirely let go of entertaining the crowd.
Berg shoots with little finesse, introducing us to Mark Wahlberg’s person of interest and the family that vouchsafe his human credentials (because he could hardly be sympathetic otherwise), like a fly on the kitchen wall. But his inner Cameron knows he’s making a disaster movie underpinned by a complicated (for the layman) set of circumstances, so Wahlberg’s daughter’s on hand to give an oil drilling demo with a straw and a can of coke, pitched at the imagined intelligence level of the audience. From there we’re inducted into the world of drilling and corporate cost cutting, with Kurt Russell’s rig-captain (who works for the company that owns the rig, not BP, who’s renting it), crossing swords with creepy company man, John Malkovich; his southern drawl and haughty demeanour alerting us to the arrogance of Russell’s paymasters, and the inevitable catastrophe to come – a tale of insufficient safety precautions, greed and hubris; in fact, a very similar set of antecedents to that other sea bound disaster, that try as Berg might, is clearly nesting in his consciousness.
Once the disaster hits, realised with great technical flair – you can practically feel the heat from the blow out and explosion that killed 11 – the movie shifts from blue collar oil rig chat, sometimes frustrating on account of Wahlberg who, unlike his real life counterpart, can’t enunciate, to a fast paced fight for survival. Here, in the midst of fire, twisted metal and no end of mini-explosions, firing projectiles at the wretched crew, Berg starts to feel the tension between the Greengrass and Cameron within, settling for a marriage of both. On land, the coastguard ape the air traffic controllers of United 93 – professional, monotone, without emotion – just as real people are imagined to be in movies. On the rig, it’s Titanic. Malkovich, the story’s Bruce Ismay, sheepishly takes a place in a lifeboat and later stands desolate as the survivors are counted on a nearby rescue vessel. Wahlberg meanwhile, channels his inner Leo, takes control of his situation, and guides rig mechanic and car nut, Gina Rodriquez, to safety, even employing a variation on “you jump, I jump”.
Perhaps the man Wahlberg’s playing loved Titanic and thought about it at the crucial moment. But more likely, Berg believes that for audiences to truly get involved in a movie disaster, even one based on real events, there has to be that character that’s somehow orientated and aware, like the men and women in the dark, able to navigate their way to safety, with a stoic calm worthy of a homo fictus.
That said, Deepwater Horizon, despite having no score to speak of – (Steve Jablonsky takes the mood enhancement, inconspicuous approach you’ve rightly grown to despise), is a tight and gripping disaster movie, that unlike the titular rig, regulates pressure well to provide humanity and tension in all the places. The manipulations may be mechanical, the execution predictable and the performances solid, but the horror of the incident just about cuts through. Is “just about” a good enough tribute to those who died? Absolutely not, but as disaster movies go, Deepwater Horizon is one of the better ones.