When it was announced that Oliver Stone would be making a film about Sept. 11, the news alone felt like a startling provocation: Hollywood's most political director, a man known for upending assumptions about America's history and institutions, would be commenting on the formative tragedy of the early 21st century. Perhaps Stone would indulge in the type of leftist conspiracy theory that informed his JFK or, at a minimum, seize the opportunity to critique the drastic changes in domestic and foreign policy precipitated by the attacks.
Instead, Stone made World Trade Center, the single dullest film in a career that now spans three decades and counting. With only five years' distance from Sept. 11, addressing the event head-on would be like staring into the sun, enough to turn the camera lens into a molten goo. So Stone and his screenwriters looked instead for a silver lining, opting for the story of two Port Authority officers who got trapped in the rubble trying to help the people fleeing the towers. He paid tribute to the heroes of that terrible day and, for the first time ever, made a film no one would find objectionable.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 wasn't Sept. 11, but it could fairly be called the formative ecological catastrophe of the early 21st century, a sea-floor gusher that lasted for 87 days and discharged 4.9 billion gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Director Peter Berg doesn't have to negotiate the same political minefield Stone did, yet Deepwater Horizon is equally craven in focusing on the event itself at the expense of the larger political and environmental picture. He's made World Trade Center all over again, telling a story of bravery and self-sacrifice that tables a more contentious discussion.
On the other hand, the environmental implications of the oil spill were so enormous at the time that it was easy to forget that 11 men died on the rig before it went down. Deepwater Horizon does the service of remembering them while implicating the greed and carelessness that put them in harm's way. The message gets lost in a towering inferno of gas explosions and other pyrotechnics, but there's enough context for the audience to boo and hiss at the news that Donald Vidrine and Robert Kaluza, two site managers charged with manslaughter for negligence, had the charges against them dropped. Every disaster movie needs its cardboard villains, after all.
The strongest section of Deepwater Horizon is the time before the blast, when tensions are mounting over a "negative pressure test" to determine whether the rig is safe to siphon its payload from 3 1/2 miles deep in the ocean. Already 43 days behind schedule, BP rep Vidrine (John Malkovich) pushes "Mr. Jimmy" (Kurt Russell), the crew captain of the Transocean rig, and his chief electronics technician, Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), to look past readings of pressure on the line. As Jimmy is off getting an award for safety — and the screenwriters are collecting their award for irony — signs of trouble are ignored and "the well from hell" starts to blow.
That's it for setup. Berg spends some time with Williams and the obligatory wife-back-home (Kate Hudson) and shows a nice facility with working-class camaraderie and technical detail, but once things go haywire, Deepwater Horizon goes right along with it. The last two-thirds of the film are a series of explosions and acts of derring-do, with Wahlberg's Williams hauling one wounded co-worker after another to the lifeboat as fire engulfs the rig. There's some detailing of logistics, like marshaling the Coast Guard from 30 minutes away or attempting to seal the line before oil bursts through the breach. But mostly there's shouting and flames, coalescing into the visual and aural white noise of human desperation.
Deepwater Horizon is undeniably rousing, but the distance between it and Berg's last waterlogged blockbuster, Battleship, isn't as great as it seems. The source material may be more prestigious — a New York Times feature rather than a Hasbro game — but it's still a common disaster movie, with cardboard heroes and villains and an excess of Irwin Allen spectacle. Any sense of outrage goes up in smoke.