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Review: 'Deepwater Horizon' a brawny hybrid of technical expertise and real-life tragedy

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Director Peter Berg threads the creative needle with Deepwater Horizon, making a somber blue-collar memoriam from disaster-flick circumstances, the 2010 explosion of a Gulf of Mexico oil rig that killed 11 crew members.

Deepwater Horizon isn't about the environmental crisis that followed any more than Lone Survivor, Berg's previous collaboration with Mark Wahlberg, was about Afghanistan war politics. Both movies focus on human costs and the resiliency of those who make it. Berg makes profiles in courage, heavy on action, yet muted out of respect.

Although too on the nose at times, Deepwater Horizon works dramatically in ways that Clint Eastwood's Sully can't, starting with the tragic fact that 11 people perished. Most viewers can't be certain who they'll be, although Wahlberg's likely a keeper, making for more suspense than Sully's well-known happy ending. Rather than trumped-up investigators, this is a story with genuine villains.

Wahlberg brings his everyman persona to the role of Mike Williams, an electrician on the Deepwater Horizon whose 60 Minutes interview soon after made him an unofficial face of the crew. Mike is a devoted husband and father, introduced right before leaving for another 21-day shift on a BP project nearly seven weeks behind schedule. The movie begins with audio of the real Williams testifying to a safety commission, sounding assured and informed, saving Wahlberg the trouble of establishing trust.

Drilling for oil is a complex engineering process that Berg tries to make simple, starting with a CGI tracking shot along the rig's pipeline to the gulf floor, 3 miles deep. One bubble rising from the mud suggests nature's gasket is about to blow. Then we meet Wahlberg as Mike, approving his daughter's soda pop can science project, demonstrating how Daddy "tames the dinosaurs" by keeping the elements in check. The can's seal ruptures, with a foreshadowing spew.

The drilling jargon gets denser offshore, as Berg's procedural instincts lead the way. Cinematographer Enrique Chediak lends a quasi-documentary feel to sequences explaining the rig's procedures and fail safes that soon will be compromised, and a sameness in the way these professionals handle their business. Not negligent, but a been-there, solved-that-before casualness. Deepwater Horizon firmly levels blame for the disaster on BP's bottom line, yet is aware of the capacity for human error and diligence that avoids it.

That conflict is handled conventionally by Kurt Russell, bristly as rig manager Jimmy Harrell, and John Malkovich, turning on the Carville smarm as a composite BP executive ignoring signs of disaster. Deepwater Horizon is remarkably accusatory for a nondocumentary, with screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand writing dialogue sounding like final arguments, when it doesn't sound like an instruction manual.

Wahlberg's job, along with Kate Hudson as his worried wife, is bringing a constant humanity to a movie that eventually does get lost in its special effects necessities and execution. Deepwater Horizon blows up real good when it must, operating practically in real time from mud eruption to rescue from a relentless inferno. Berg snaps back into tribute mode with a spiritual finale that would seem hokey if not documented in the New York Times article inspiring this screenplay.

Deepwater Horizon is a brawny hybrid of technical expertise and real-life tragedy, with neither quality getting shortchanged. Berg's movie brings to mind Wahlberg's other true story, The Perfect Storm, in raising awareness of dangers in a blue-collar occupation taken for granted. That 2010 oil spill was horrible; Deepwater Horizon wants us to also remember the blood spill.

Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

 
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