“My daddy tames the dinosaurs!” beams oil rig chief Mike Williams’s (Mark Wahlberg) daughter in Deepwater Horizon. Sydney (Stella Allen) stabs a metal straw into a Coca-Cola can to show how her pops drills miles under the ocean floor to tap a fossil fuel funeral party of 50 million barrels of oil. The soda explodes. It soaks the Cheerios and ruins breakfast. But we’ve got our simplest explanation of the disaster to come, which will ultimately tally six investigations, more than 120 lawsuits, billions of dollars, and 11 fatalities.
Before we see a single image, we hear Williams — the real one, not Wahlberg — at one of those major inquiries swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. It’s a promise director Peter Berg vows himself, at least, more than most based-on-a-true-story spectaculars and certainly more than his and Wahlberg’s last pairing, Lone Survivor, which had a nose longer than a sniper rifle. Berg and Wahlberg were among the first to realize you can make big money in Hollywood’s fastest-growing niche: the docubuster, which spins a recent disaster into a bombastic action flick starring a working man just trying to get out of a jam, be it Benghazi, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Hudson River, the Indian Ocean, or, here, the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s easy to see why these movies are hits. Who wouldn’t rather fill out a headline by hooting at a 90-minute crowd-pleaser than chugging through a 160-page legal brief? The problem is, half these movies are lies, their false histories sticking to audiences like popcorn grease. And together, they convince people of a dangerous half-truth: The men in charge are fools.
Deepwater Horizon is the best of the bunch. It’s a hero story for wonks and scientists, people who spend their days surrounded by dry-erase boards inked with numbers and grids and yet go to work in a jumpsuit, their faces smeared with muck. Everyone wears a hardhat that announces their name and job — practical for them, less so for us, as Berg’s camera paces so nervously that we only read snatches of words: “mud,” “drill,” “floor.” When the businessmen come aboard the floating derrick, which is so small you could walk the entire perimeter in five minutes, they’re such soft-bellied, syrup-voiced caricatures of money men that their helmets should read “corporate tool.” “We are confident in the integrity of our cementing,” purrs the film’s lead villain, Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), a British Petroleum suit annoyed that the project is $53 million over budget. Sounds like a lot of money, but at the time, BP earned $66 million every day. “So why skimp on a $125,000 concrete safety test?” presses chief engineer Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), a boss so beloved his men call him “Mister Jimmy,” like he's the only adult. “That’s why we’re a $186 billion company,” sniffs Vidrine. I half-expected Donald Trump to barge in and add, “That’s called business, by the way.”
You could argue that the real villain is our global dependence on oil. Berg doesn’t — these films don’t ask “why?” so much as “how do I get out alive?” — but he comes close. Before Williams arrives at Deepwater Horizon, Berg shows us the cost of his commute, pausing to watch wife Felicia (Kate Hudson, good) fill the tank of their car (“Buy gas, go to work, buy gas, come home from work,” she hums) and again as the pilot fuels the helicopter that will ferry Williams, Harrell, and sole female employee Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) the 41 miles off the Louisiana coast to their floating time bomb. (En route, their chopper nearly crashes after smashing into a bird, giving you two docubusters for the price of one!) Then the camera plunges underwater to gaze at the machinery that keeps Deepwater Horizon — and the worldwide economy — afloat. Except for a goofy fish in the corner of the screen, the shot is so murky it looks like footage of the Titanic. Which makes sense: Both were ego-driven catastrophes fashioned into weepies by action directors who appreciate a good cry, or at least a manly sniffle.
Parts of Deepwater Horizon teeter into Mason-Dixon drag as Manhattan-born Berg drills for those Southern box office dollars. Wahlberg’s Williams isn’t just a macho math geek; the script squeezes in his hobby of catfish noodling — you know, when a hunter sticks his arm in an underwater hole and wrestles a fish to shore with his bare hand — with his best friend, Peanut. And when Williams Skypes with Felicia, his missus sips on a Bud Light Lime and coos, “I’m just a simple country girl.” Still, Felicia is given more personality than the average tragic wife, who tends to be cast as a bland girl-next-door with perfect hair. At the end of the film when she races to find news of her husband, she’s not in tight jeans and a sexy-but-Walmart-sexy top — the kind of outfit country singers imagine their wives in while they’re on the road — she’s in a shapeless tee that legitimately looks to have been snatched randomly from the laundry pile.
Once the leak starts, Deepwater Horizon mutates into Hitchcock for bros. There’s shades of Psycho when Mister Jimmy steps into the shower and hears the pipes creak (as well as the unspoken truth that brave men aren’t all ready to spring into action), and shades of The Birds when an oil-slicked pelican bursts into the control deck and smashes buttons in a panic. That shot of nature’s vengeance is the closest the film gets to acknowledging the environmental cost of the spill, estimated at 210 million gallons of crude. Try to picture that in milk.
But Berg is here to honor the 11 humans who died in the explosions — plural, as the flames turned every object on the drill into a bomb. Once the booms start, they’re as insistent as a drum. The victims are so covered in mud and blood that we can’t always tell who they are. In one scene, someone in a group of four catches fire and falls off the Horizon, and I grieved the wrong person for minutes.
Unlike Lone Survivor, which multiplied eight insurgents into 200, Berg doesn’t exaggerate the disaster, or the heroics, and the film is more devastating for it. At the end, he doesn’t pander with patriotic speeches and American flags. Instead, he has the rescue boat take roll call, and the silence every time the dead can’t answer is as emotional as a eulogy. Then Berg blunts the sound so our ears feel clogged with seawater, and shows Wahlberg sobbing on the carpet of his hotel. This is what a strong man looks like when he’s learned his friends’ lives are cheap. And though these films and their profits sometimes feel like a priest shaming mourners into putting cash in the basket, Deepwater Horizon honors those lives, even if, after riling audiences up, it can’t figure out what we should do next. (I’d start by streaming Margaret Brown’s fantastic documentary The Great Invisible, available on Netflix.) As for Berg and Wahlberg, they know what’s next for them: Patriots Day, their docubuster about the Boston Marathon bombing, is in theaters this Christmas.