Deepwater Horizon
Directed by Peter Berg

By Noel Vera

THE DEEPWATER HORIZON was a specially designed ship meant to move into waters 5,000 feet deep and drill for oil. I’d read about them back in grade school (far too many years ago), and for a science project tried to construct a model. The principle was simple enough: build a platform with pontoons capable of floating, bolt said platform to the sea floor (actually the bottom of an aquarium tank). If the pontoons are watertight and the bolts secure the platform is stable — buoyancy kept the chains tight, anchoring the platform against wind and rolling waves. I remember constructing the model out of wood and plastic, with metal rods and paper strips to simulate the drilling tower; unfortunately the tank I used leaked, and the project was never presented.

Oil’s well that ends well

So: semi-submersible dynamically positioning rigs — and a movie about the most famous such rig in history, with big explosions thrown in? Color me interested.

The movie’s biggest star as it turns out aren’t the Hollywood actors but the set itself. Deepwater Horizon is an intimidating presence, an acre-wide pipe-and-girder monster rearing out of the blue Gulf waters, with the accompanying shudders and creaks and groans you imagine such a massive creature might make. Director Peter Berg in an NPR interview admitted BP unsurprisingly refused to cooperate with the production, blocking them from talking to key people, or even boarding a rig. They ended up building one of their own: 3 million pounds of steel went into an 85% scale mock-up situated in the parking lot of an abandoned Six Flags park, over a 2.5 million gallon water tank; to reproduce the disaster they detonated several titanic explosions and lit the whole thing on fire.

Quite a spectacle, and not a lot of digital enhancement far as I can tell (helps that the climax takes place at night). When Berg sits back and lets the set burn and blow you’re rocked back by the sheer size and force of what he’s doing — Orson Welles’ famous “train set” adage writ larger-than-life on the big screen.

The movie’s problem isn’t the train set though, but how Berg plays with it. He stages most of the action too close in and cuts in a jittery rhythm even when it’s just two people at home talking; there’s no relaxation, no moment of respite in his movies. No modulation either — he starts at a high level of tension and foreboding (a magenta tie the color of bad luck; a bird smashing unaccountably into glass a la The Birds) with nowhere else to go.

When the bird really hits the fan you want to see what’s going on but can’t — Berg cuts too fast, shakes the camera while he’s overcutting. Occasionally he’ll pull back to a long shot and give you a breathtaking view of the rig dressed in tattered flames, or (earlier in the picture) a spectacular shot of mud and oil blowing out of the rig’s every orifice, a halo of dark and brown foreshadowing the deaths to come.

The incoherence makes you long for the more assured hand of, oh say, Paul WS Anderson, whose Pompeii was edited at a swift pace yet remained coherent (it’s actually possible, yes) and whose signature shot is the divine POV — usually a high-angle shot looking down from some godlike height — the better to orient oneself and see the entire situation at a glance (also a distancing device to help tamp down any melodrama, and a way of suggesting Anderson’s own view: that we’re really pawns spied upon by vast powers in some equally vast yet ultimately meaningless game [it’s our struggle that matters, not the game]).

Or better and more relevant: The China Syndrome, James Bridges’ film not on petroleum oil explosions but the possibility of nuclear apocalypse. Like Deepwater the earlier film depicts in semi-documentary style the causes and consequences of an industrial disaster; like Deepwater the earlier film tackles the knotty problem of introducing basic nuclear physics and worse the process of operating a nuclear plant to the casual viewer (if early in Deepwater a child calls drilling a well “taming the monster” you wonder what she’d say to a water-cooled atomic reactor). 

Unlike Berg, Bridges is an assured terrifically understated filmmaker; unlike Berg, Bridges keeps his camera stable and his editing precise. Unlike Berg, Bridges seems to know the limits and capabilities of point-of-view: where Berg indulges in zooming POV shots up and down the drillshaft, showing us ominous images of bubbles rising from the concrete cap on the sea floor, Bridges dazzles us with blinking lights, falling needles and spinning dials; the only glimpse we have of what’s going on inside is provided by a grainy video screen.

It’s a curious distancing device, especially in this age of cameras digitally shooting up and down cables and pipes, and a deliberately chosen one: it gives us only the information the plant operators would know only when they know it, a far more difficult challenge for a disaster-film director but a far more effective one when pulled off. It emphasizes the great powers of observation and insight granted to these workers at the same time underlining the limits of those powers — we realize  we know a lot of what’s going on inside the containment building but not everything, and awareness of that limit, of the tremendous dark lurking beyond the boundaries of our knowledge, can be terrifying. Against Bridges’ coherently constructed vision, Deepwater’s rather straightlaced apple-pie affirmative world of heroic blue-collar workers seems limited, if not downright blinkered.*

MTRCB Rating: R-13

* Don’t mean just the filmmaking: Bridges’ view of the plant workers and of the increasingly liberal journalist covering their story seems more nuanced and complicated — it respects their dedication and hard work, same time it’s conscious of the fact that they are flawed and unwitting collaborators in the oncoming disaster.