Peter Berg was an actor before he was a director, and while he continues to act (primarily in projects he has a hand in behind-the-scenes), directing is where he has made his biggest mark. I would not have said that after his first film, “Very Bad Things,” but while I do not necessarily love everything I’ve seen of his, he has a talent for storytelling that is more than capable with any story he wants to tell, whether it’s a political thriller in the Middle East (“The Kingdom”), a drama about a high school football team (“Friday Night Lights”), a superhero movie with a less than super hero (“Hancock”) or a “based on a true story” drama like “Deepwater Horizon.” (For the record, I still have not watched “Lone Survivor,” “The Rundown” or “Battleship.”) He doesn’t have a personal stamp he puts on films, but rather just has a knack for telling compelling stories, with the quality of the screenplay dictating how well his films succeed. Recently, he has started to go into true stories of heroism and sacrifice under duress with “Lone Survivor” and “Deepwater Horizon” (and his next film, “Patriots Day,” about the terror attack at the Boston Marathon) with Mark Whalberg, and it’s an area he does quite well in, even if I don’t love “Deepwater Horizon,” I think he’s more than capable in telling the story.
Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, “Horizon” tells the story of April 20, 2010, when the oil rig Deepwater Horizon had an explosion, causing the worst oil spill in US History in the Gulf of Mexico and killing 11 crew workers as the rig is destroyed. BP, the company who was leasing the rig at the time, was the corporate face of the tragedy, but Berg and his writers are more focused on the rig workers who lived and breathed that work for weeks at a time, away from their families. The central character in the film is Whalberg’s Mike Williams, but arguably the most compelling is Kurt Russell’s Jimmy Harrell, the crew boss who is aware of the miscalculations BP is risking when the well they are working on runs behind and more expensive than they anticipated. When he, Williams, and BP executives land on the rig, a team is leaving that was supposed to test some of the well’s integrity, but are leaving too quickly to have done so properly. When Harrell orders a test, some anomalies show up, but they trust their experience over the numbers, and the results are disastrous. The last hour is about the explosions aftermath, how the crew doesn’t act quickly enough to save the rig, and how they manage to save as many of themselves as possible.
One of the problems with a true story like this is that it’s easy to get caught up in disaster movie cliches of heroism rather than just sticking to telling the story, and Berg falls right into that trap after the explosion. We remain engaged in the fight for survival, but the characters (based on real people, as they are) are so broadly drawn in the screenplay that we don’t get a sense of them as being real individuals who were risking their lives, and fighting for their lives in a real-life tragedy. That’s a balancing act few filmmakers are really capable of pulling off- one of the few to really get it right was Paul Greengrass when he made “United 93” ten years ago- and it’s hard to fault Berg for not really being able to do it here. He still is more than capable of telling a story that will hold people’s attention and grab them emotionally, and even if it feels more like typical Hollywood blockbuster building than a painful look at a tragedy which inspired on-the-spot heroism, that’s ultimately an important think for a filmmaker to do when bringing a story like this to life.