Peter Berg, 107 mins, starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dylan O'Brien, Kate Hudson, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez, John Malkovich
Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon is one of a number of recent Hollywood features that have somehow managed to find rousing examples of American courage within real-life incidents that were, in fact, utter disasters. In such films, the villains are the elite – the business leaders or politicians. Their mistakes have to be atoned for by blue collar American everyman-types.
In Michael Bay’s shockingly jingoistic 13 Hours: The Soldiers Of Benghazi, the heroes were the security contractors who mounted their own Alamo-like resistance against the Islamic militia attacking the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi. In Berg’s 2013 feature Lone Survivor, navy SEALs in Afghanistan bungle a mission and the servicemen are caught in a mountaintop battle against the overwhelming strength of the Taliban.
Here, the heroes are the oil rig workers fighting for survival in the Gulf of Mexico after an apocalyptic blowout on the Deepwater Horizon. They’ve been betrayed by the executives from BP and “their bosses in London”, who run an $185bn company and yet still take short cuts when it comes to safety on the rig.
“Every time I peel off a band-aid on this rig, I find 3 or 4 more,” one engineer complains. (The BP logo here serves roughly the same function as a swastika in Second World War films. Anyone who wears it is absolutely not to be trusted.)
Thankfully, Deepwater Horizon (which is based on an article in the New York Times) drills more deeply into its material than 13 Hours did. Director Berg goes out of his way to give the story of the massive oil spill a mythic dimension. During the first few moments of the film, we don’t see a human face. The earliest glimpse of the main character Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) is of him emerging from a deep sleep. He’s at home with his wife (country girl Kate Hudson) and doe-eyed daughter but is just about to go back to work on the rig.
There is a lot of foreshadowing. Little omens hint at the disasters to come. A car won’t start. We see a can of coke exploding. A BP middle manager is wearing a magenta-coloured tie – and for the superstitious rig workers, magenta is as unlucky a colour as you can get.
Head of safety on the rig is Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), a whiskered old-timer with an exemplary record. He’s a crotchety type but is resourceful, selfless and very competent. Russell plays him like a slightly more benign version of his ageing cowboys in Bone Tomahawk and The Hateful Eight. Pitted against him is the BP supervisor Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich).
This is another of Malkovich’s enjoyably Mephistophelian performances. He’s a purring, smiling figure with a little goatee beard that he loves to scratch but, for all his avuncularity, we know instantly that he is an utterly ruthless company man.
The film was produced by Participant Media, the eco-conscious company behind Al Gore’s 2006 global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth. There is a certain irony in the fact that one of the backers of Deepwater Horizon is Image Nation Abu Dhabi, a state-owned media company from the United Arab Emirates.
However, the environmental consequences of the disaster – the fact that the rig leaked huge amounts of oil into the Gulf of Mexico for over 80 days – aren’t foregrounded here. We see one very disturbing scene in which a sea bird, its plumage thick with oil, flies around in a frenzy in the rig’s control room, crashing against windows and equipment, but there is little else in the film dealing with the impact of the spill on marine life.
You can’t help but marvel at the sheer resourcefulness of the filmmakers in crafting a dramatic feature film based on a newspaper article. They manage to throw in plenty of jargon – asides about blowout preventers (BOPs) and cement integrity – without ever interrupting the flow of the narrative. By including a few Skype conversations between Wahlberg and Kate Hudson back on shore, they’re able to inject a romantic element into the story too.
Early Oscars 2017 contenders
Early Oscars 2017 contenders
Martin Scorsese’s passion project since 1991 is yet to receive a release date but rumours abound that it will be out in time for the Oscars. Based on a novel of the same name by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, the story centres on two Jesuit missionaries sent to 17th century Japan to spread Christianity and find their mentor Once there, they endure brutal persecution at the time of Kakura Kirishitan (‘Hidden Christians’) following the defeat of the Shimabara Rebellion. Silence sounds weighty, intense and full of hard-hitting promise.
2/18 Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi director Ang Lee has narrowly missed out on a Best Picture win twice now but this adaptation of Ben Fountain’s acclaimed novel could be the film that finally wins him some overdue glory. The cast includes Kristen Stewart and Vin Diesel with newcomer Joe Alwyn in the lead as 19-year-old soldier Billy, who is brought home for a victory tour after serving in Iraq. Told in flashbacks, the drama reveals the horror of what really happened to his squad in contrast to America’s flashy, patriotic perceptions. Out here 6 January.
3/18 A United Kingdom
Oyelowo plays Prince Seretse Khama, inaugural Botswana president from 1966 to 1980, in this follow-up to 2015’s Belle. Films about real life people often hold clout with the Academy when done well and with Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike playing Khama’s eventual wife Ruth Williams, A United Kingdom should pull in cinemagoers. Khama sparked a global stir when he married the white Londoner in the late Forties and the first pictures from the movie promise beautiful costumes and cinematography. A United Kingdom will open the London Film Festival before its general release on 25 November.
Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton star as Mildred and Richard Loving in this historical drama about an interracial couple sentenced to prison in Virginia in 1958 for the crime of getting married. Out here just in time for the Oscars on 3 February. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, Loving earned positive reviews from critics when it competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and received a standing ovation for understated, strong performances.
5/18 Manchester by the Sea
One of the best scripts co-producer Matt Damon had ever read, this tragedy about an uncle who is forced to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy’s father dies while trying to reconcile with his ex-wife stars Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and newcomer Lucas Hedges. It was bought at Sundance by Amazon for $10 million and arrives in the UK on 13 January.
6/18 Nocturnal Animals
Designer Tom Ford has cinematic strings to his bow, as proved with 2009’s Venice premiere The Single Man. He’s back in the chair for this drama-thriller starring Amy Adams as a remarried art gallery owner whose ex-husband’s violent new book begins to haunt her. Jake Gyllenhaal, Isla Fisher and Armie Hammer also star. Due in UK cinemas on 4 November.
7/18 The Light Between Oceans
Michael Fassbender stars alongside last year’s Best Supporting Actress winner Alicia Vikander in the big screen adaptation of ML Stedman’s 2012 novel of the same name. Derek Cianfrance is the man behind the camera for this story about a lighthouse keeper war veteran who rescues a baby girl with his wife after she washes up on an adrift rowboat. Then, in steps another Oscar winner, Rachel Weisz, as the woman who threatens to break their happy family apart. Out in the UK on 4 November - bring tissues.
8/18 American Pastoral
Ewan McGregor makes his directorial debut with this period adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral. The drama - set in the 60s - centres on a successful businessman (McGregor) whose missing daughter (Dakota Fanning) is accused of a violent bombing in post-war America. Out in the UK on 11 November.
9/18 Queen of Katwe
Indian-American filmmaker Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) is the director behind this long-awaited biopic of Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi. That Mutesi is played by 12 Years a Slave Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o is reason enough to anticipate this Disney-produced film, out here 21 October.
10/18 Free Fire
Ben Wheatley’s new action thriller will close the London Film Festival. Set in Massachusetts in the late Seventies, Free Fire stars Oscar-winning Room actress Brie Larson in the lead alongside Cillian Murphy. It follows the ‘heart-stopping game of survival’ after shots are fired during a meeting between Justine, two Irishmen and two arms dealers who are selling them a stash of guns. Expect ‘blood, sweat and irony’ with bravura filmmaking from the High-Rise director. Reaches UK cinemas sometime in 2017.
Jim Jarmusch’s Palme d’Or contender sees Adam Driver take the lead as a bus driver poet from Paterson, New Jersey. Each night after work, he has dinner with his wife Laura before walking his dog (2016’s Palm Dog winner) to the bar for one beer. Then one day, a small disaster strikes.
12/18 The Founder
Michael Keaton has starred in the last two Best Picture winners Spotlight and Birdman. Here, he takes on the role of ruthless McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc, with the film telling the story of the fast food empire’s origins. The ambitious entrepreneur on a journey to theme didn’t end so well for last year’s Joy, so it remains to be seen whether The Founder can live up to expectations as an Oscars contender. Out here 30 September.
The Weinstein Company
Clint Eastwood returns with Sully: Miracle on the Hudson, about the hero pilot who, in 2009, successfully landed his plane along the Hudson River after it was disabled by a flock of geese, saving all 155 crew and passengers. Tom Hanks takes the lead as Chesley Sullenberger in a biopic that sounds like it could tick a lot of Oscars boxes. Based on the autobiography Highest Duty, the thriller marks Eastwood’s first directorial effort since 2014’s American Sniper. Out 2 December.
Pablo Larrain directs Oscar winner Natalie Portman as late first lady and fashion icon Jacqueline Kennedy in what he has promised will not be another ‘classic biopic’. Set in the days immediately after John F Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, the film sparked great excitement among distributors after a seven-minute promo screened at Cannes. Release date unknown at this stage.
15/18 The Girl on the Train
The Help’s Tate Taylor is in the director’s chair for ‘this year’s Gone Girl’ about a troubled woman who becomes embroiled in a murder case after developing a fixation on a beautiful couple from her commuter train. Expect a film pulsating with creepy, voyeur vibes, a la Rear Window, based on Paula Hawkins’ bestselling thriller. Out in the UK on 7 October.
16/18 Florence Foster Jenkins
Meryl Streep has been widely praised for her turn as the 1940s New York heiress who couldn’t sing (and we mean really couldn’t sing) yet somehow became an opera singer with the help of her patient husband St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) and pianist Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg). Directed by two-time Academy nominee Stephen Frears, the film proved heartwarming and inspiring upon its release earlier this year and was embraced by both film lovers and critics.
Rebecca Hall set Sundance ablaze in January, earning five-star reviews for ‘the performance of her career’ in Christine, about the news anchor who killed herself live on air in 1974 after suffering from depression. Yet to receive a UK release date, Christine arrives in US cinemas in October, with Antonio Campos also one to watch for directorial accolades come awards season.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Jeremy Renner in a scene from 'Arrival'
The cross-cutting between the anxious faces of the rig workers and the dials on their computers helps heighten the tension. At a climactic moment, the crew says the Lord’s Prayer together (“deliver us from evil”). Just like the oil in the pipes of the rig, the pressure in the storyline keeps rising. One character feels a piece of machinery and realises there is a tiny smudge of oil on the top of his finger – a sure sign that the gushing is about to begin. We’re told it will take at least 35 minutes for any helicopters to get to the scene of the catastrophe.
The actual explosion, when it finally happens, is just a little anti-climactic. The rig lights up in the darkness like Blackpool Tower. Characters in their cabins, having showers or talking to loved ones, only very slowly realise what is happening. Soon, inevitably, many of the rig workers are drenched in oil and beginning to look like glistening monsters from the deep as the fires rage around them. Just as in Titanic, there are roll calls and then an undignified scurry for the lifeboats.
If there was human error on behalf of the crew members, the filmmakers don’t want to investigate it. Instead, they make the film into a celebration of blue-collar heroism. In spite of the death of 11 crew members and the unspeakable environment devastation in the wake of the explosion, Deepwater Horizon somehow manages to be upbeat – an achievement, albeit a very perverse one. The disaster may not have been good for the seagulls but at least it allowed the characters played by Wahlberg and Russell to show their mettle.
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