'Deepwater Horizon' Turns A National Tragedy Into A Compelling Spectacle

The most striking shot in Deepwater Horizon comes near the middle of the film as the gargantuan drilling rig burns, coloring the night sky with flames. A BP executive makes his way to the escape vessel when he suddenly turns around and gives a look of terror. The camera swings from his face to behind his back to look at the spectacle: a CGI firestorm dazzles on the screen, turning terror into sheer awe. In the foreground of the shot, an unvarnished American flag strongly waves.

What other image could describe the cinema of Peter Berg, who follows up his controversial Afghanistan War film Lone Survivor with this strangely compelling salute to... a tragic environmental disaster? In the American psyche, the Deepwater Horizon disaster embodies capitalism gone amuck—the oil spill ruined countless lives and communities, not to mention the ecological damage. In the screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, the story of the disaster that followed the initial explosion is only teased during the closing montage. Instead, Deepwater Horizon focuses on the dread (and a few of the mistakes) that led to the blowout and the physical destruction that followed that night. If anything, Berg purges our political emotions of the event by grabbing us with visceral spectacle.

It's a successful gambit by Berg, one certainly that makes us focus on the immediate details instead of larger ideas. The set of the drilling platform, built with painstaking accuracy by set designer Chris Seager in three separate sections (to 85% of the size of the actual rig), is a colossal, almost alien, labyrinth of metallic pipes. It's the world seen through Wahlberg's Mike Williams, an expert on the rig's ins-and-outs who ends up a witness to the events. Wahlberg has taken his perennial boyish charm into the everyday common man by limiting his emoting and turning drama into comedy. But his role is more of a cipher to the tension between the rig's crew (led by Kurt Russell) and the BP capitalists who only discuss profits over and safety considerations.

It would be hard to make an entirely apolitical story here, but in many ways, the lowly workers vs. bureaucratic capitalists narrative gets swept under the rug by the time the pressure starts rising from below. By combining practical sets with subtle uses of CGI, Berg builds a material feeling that puts us directly in the middle. He may not be the best at using the camera to frame dramatic action between characters, but his focus on the elemental creates an intensely felt experience in the viewer's body. The choppy editing and handheld camera spin the viewer in every direction as the chaos builds. As oil bursts from pipes, bodies smashing against metal hits a bone-cracking intensity. Bits of concrete fly through the air registering on the booming soundtrack. When the flames finally erupt, the mix of the real sets with CGI, captured by Enrique Chediak's blunt cinematography, causes the heat to seem to flow past the screen into the audience. As the helpless oil men (and one woman) attempt to escape the burning wreckage, Berg makes sure that his audience will squirm in their seats, perilous to do anything but watch.

The question remains: to what ends? Like United 93, another film that depicted the carnage of a national tragedy, Deepwater Horizon hits you right in your gut as you watch bodies helplessly succumb to a storm of mud, oil, metal, and fire. But why turn the perils of a tragedy into a kind of movie magic that is at once seductive yet excruciating?

While paying lip service to politics, Deepwater Horizon's strangest moment comes when the crew has made it to the makeshift rescue vessel. Every survivor takes to their knees and recites the Lord's Prayer as a swirl of red and yellow flames dance in the distance. "Deliver us from evil"—but what evil? When Williams learns early that a crucial test on the drilling platform was skipped, he casually remarks, "It's not stupid but it ain't smart," suggesting the disaster was somewhere between human error and simply an act of God (something the real-life Williams' own voice remarks during the credits). Perhaps by succumbing to the image-making is the only way Americans can truly "win" such a horrific disaster, especially one in which we only have ourselves to blame.

Deepwater Horizon opens everywhere tonight.

Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.