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Still waters run deep

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'Deepwater Horizon' surprisingly effective

Dramatizing real-life events is a tricky business. Depending on the mindset, the degree with which these films ultimately reconcile with what really happened can vary wildly. Surprisingly, this is even true with the recent spate of films revisiting relatively recent events this even despite the recounted happenings being fairly fresh in the collective consciousness.

The trend continues with 'Deepwater Horizon' from director Peter Berg. Berg who reunites with 'Lone Survivor' star Mark Wahlberg turns his lens onto the disaster that befell the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform in April of 2011. Rather than focusing on the devastating environmental aftermath, this is the story of what happened that fateful night and the people to whom it happened.

Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, an electronics tech assigned to the Deepwater Horizon platform. He operates under the supervision of Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell, 'The Hateful Eight'), a no-nonsense guy who is far more interested in doing things correctly than doing them quickly.

Unfortunately, the suits from BP led by the condescending and smug Vadrine (John Malkovich, 'Zoolander 2') have their own motivations. The well is over 40 days late; the company men are willing to do whatever it takes to get it operational, regardless of any warning people like Jimmy and Mike might offer. And if that means rushing a few things or even skipping them altogether wellthey're ready to take their chances.

Those taken chances play themselves out in a sequence of unlikely events that plays out in rapid succession. Within minutes, catastrophic equipment failures combine with poor in-the-moment decisions to turn the floating platform into a death trap; fire, oil, toxic gases, pressurized mud each deadly on its own, but particularly horrific in tandem.

As Deepwater Horizon burns, Mike is determined to get back home to his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson, 'Mother's Day') and his daughter, but he's not about to just save himself - he battles danger at every turn in an effort to save not just his own life, but the lives of those trapped along with him.

While I'm familiar with some of the environmental and economic aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, I know almost nothing about the disaster itself. Other than a few satellite images and video clips on the evening news, I saw little. So while I can't speak to the veracity of the events as portrayed in the film, it should be noted that unlike many other films based on recent history there was little previous knowledge to color my experience.

Which was, all in all, a good one.

'Deepwater Horizon' plays out much like a big 1970s-era disaster movie. Its structure is similar the first half of the film serves to introduce the players and heavily foreshadow the impending event, while the second half consists entirely of those same players dealing with said event. The good guys are aw-shucks good, while the bad guy (though the 'villain' in these movies is always the disaster itself) makes himself obvious from minute one. The hero does heroic things and the credits roll.

This resemblance is not a bad thing. Berg has built a film that feels like a throwback, yet maintains a sense of modernity. There's no questioning his ability to ratchet up tension particularly through well-constructed action sequences. He's also got a track record of producing engaging popcorn cinema based on real-life people and places; 'Friday Night Lights' and the aforementioned 'Lone Survivor' immediately spring to mind. He doesn't reinvent the wheel here, but he doesn't have to.

The spectacle at work here is undeniable. The last half-hour or so of the movie is an extended set-piece, the kind of long slow collapse in which Hollywood used to specialize. It does get to be a bit much it has moments of feeling repetitive and/or gratuitous but the tension generated is palpable. While the script has some flaws the narrative is a bit undercooked, some characters are underdeveloped and it can get heavy-handed with the emotional manipulation Berg and company have made it work more often than it doesn't.

Few actors in Hollywood have embraced the narrowness of their range quite like Mark Wahlberg. And the truth is that there's a lot of big-studio work for a guy in that range something Wahlberg has been savvy about for years. It's no different here he's a hardworking guy who is thrust into circumstances that he could never prepare for and is devoted to doing what he believes to be the right thing. He leans into his inherent mild dopiness here; it works. Basically, this is an ideal role for him.

The supporting cast is surprising. Kurt Russell who is always good and seems to be having a bit of a well-deserved and long-overdue career renaissance does his Kurt Russell thing here, walking the line between toughness and sensitivity like few others can. Malkovich is delightful as the oily oil guy, leering and smirking and generally chomping on whatever bits of scenery he can reach. The rest of the crew Hudson, Gina Rodriguez, Ethan Suplee and a gaggle of others all do solid work, even if it is mostly relegated to the background.

'Deepwater Horizon' manages to find the sweet spot between taking itself seriously and providing intense, engaging action. It's one of those rare movies that seems to have become exactly what it set out to be and in 21st century Hollywood, that's not nothing. In terms of 'based on a true story' films particularly recent ones this is one of the better ones.

[4 out of 5]

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