"Hope ain't a tactic." — Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg)
It seems autumn is the season for what I call "docudramas," since the last three films I've watched have been based on fact. I always try to remember that qualifier, "based on."
In this week's film ripped from the headlines, as the saying goes, director Peter Berg (Lone Survivor) revisits the 2010 disaster aboard the exploratory rig Deepwater Horizon, which I'll presume everyone remembers, especially as, evidently, scientists are still tabulating the short and long-term effects. Berg's film wisely doesn't dwell on esoteric technical matters — there is still a lot of technobabble, which sounds authentic but is made somewhat incomprehensible by the actors' forced Louisiana accents. Instead, it focuses on the rig's workers, eleven of whom died, with more than a dozen others wounded, and I'll surmise an undetermined number of others who suffered and still suffer various degrees of PTSD.
Berg spends the first 10 minutes or so of his film with Mark Wahlberg as real-life survivor Mike Williams, showing us his home life with his child and wife (Kate Hudson). I realize it's probably necessary or at least obligatory in order to exhort us to identify with Williams, ostensibly the central character, but I have to tell you that I found it pretty interminable.
Thankfully, things pick up a good bit when Williams joins up with his boss Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russel), also based on a real person, to ride back out to the rig, and from there Berg immerses us in a totally fascinating tour of what has been reported to be the largest and most expensive movie set ever constructed. Almost immediately, Harrell becomes embroiled in an argument with boss Don Vidrine (John Malkovich), also based on a real person, over whether to proceed with a dangerous operation — intercut, of course, with shots of bubbling and brewing on the ocean floor nearly 10,000 feet below.
Seems it's the age-old conflict both in real life and reel life: The bosses want to bull their way forward to impress the shareholders without adequate respect for the blue collar workers' hands-on knowledge. Almost inevitably, catastrophe ensues. Nevertheless, I must at least entertain the notion that the real-life Vidrine wasn't such a mustache-twirling villain as the film makes him out to be.
Berg excels in the staging of the crucial moments of the disaster, and, whether the film is entirely true to reality, it's a heck of an exciting and terrifying recreation, with a perfect melding of on-set practical work and post-production CGI. It must at the very least impart something of what it must have been like, as well as giving the audience an impression of what's required to find oil on a planet where supplies are increasingly expensive and dangerous to get to. However, I did find the cutting away from the action to Hudson, back on shore, watching sporadic reports about the in-progress disaster, a little injurious to the suspense. Once might have worked, but not the four or five times it happens.
A movie like this is pretty much science fiction. No, there's not any aliens or any stuff like that, but science still has a profound effect on the lives of human beings. Some would argue that it's science, but not necessarily fiction, in that it's at least based on fact. Maybe it is, but Berg's focus is on characters in a desperate situation, fighting for their lives. It may nor may not be entirely factual, but it's not boring — at least not while we're aboard the rig.