One of the minor but memorable recurring characters that live forever in “Seinfeld” syndication history is Babu Bhatt, who on a number of occasions had good reason to wag his finger at Jerry and say, “You bad man! You very very bad man!”
The almost willfully negligent BP executive played by John Malkovich in “Deepwater Horizon” is so arrogant, so obstinate and so quick to brush off multiple and serious safety concerns aboard the ill-fated oil rig, I half-expected the good guys played by Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell to get in his face and say, “You bad man! You very very bad man!”
Just as Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” made no bones about declaring the NSA leaker an American freedom fighter, Peter Berg’s “Deepwater Horizon” paints a number of crew members as flat-out heroes while portraying BP officials as almost cartoonishly villainous — blinded to the point of stupidity by their greed.
I’d say Berg has a much stronger case than Stone.
The April 20, 2010, explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig some 40 miles southeast of the Louisiana coast killed 11 workers, injured 17 others, created the largest offshore oil spill in history and is considered the worst ecological disaster our nation has ever seen.
In the hands of director Berg, who specializes in quick-cut, adrenaline-pumping action (“Friday Night Lights,” “Battleship,” “Lone Survivor”), it’s a well-made, sometimes horrifyingly realistic re-creation of events — but it often feels like a formulaic disaster film, from the obligatory scenes depicting “Peaceful Morning at Home for the Main Characters Before All Hell Breaks Loose” to the “Joshing Around Before All Hell Breaks Loose” scenes on the rig to the “Something’s Seriously Wrong” sequences to the “All Hell Breaks Loose!” madness to the “Frantic Wife on the Phone Trying to Get Information” cutaway scenes.
Berg reteams with “Lone Survivor” star Mark Wahlberg, who plays the likable and respected chief electronics technician Mike Williams. Wahlberg is believable and natural in the early, tender scenes at home with his lovely wife (Kate Hudson) and their whip-smart, beyond adorable daughter (Stella Allen), and in the sequences aboard the rig, whether he’s exchanging techno-jargon with the crew, verbally sparring with the BP execs aboard the rig or repeatedly risking his own safety to save others as fierce explosions and raging fires roar all around him.
Kurt Russell is perfectly cast as the beloved crew captain Mr. Jimmy, Gina Rodriguez is outstanding as the relatively inexperienced technician Andrea Fleytas, and Hudson does fine work as Mike’s wife Felicia. (The screenplay gives Hudson’s character a little more depth than Laura Linney’s very similar wife-on-the-phone role in “Sully.”)
As for the great Malkovich, who if he were cast as a lamppost would play that lamppost as the most eccentric lamppost ever: There’s a smirking malevolence to his portrayal of BP executive Donald Vidrine, who is so frustrated with Deepwater Horizon’s behind-schedule performance, he finds a way to discount every safety concern, bypass crucial performance tests and demand the crew proceed as scheduled.
Meanwhile, Berg builds the suspense with murky glimpses of the drill creaking and cracking and shuddering deep below the rig. (Working on a school project, Mike’s daughter describes the oil as a “monster” in the deep that must be contained — and indeed, Berg sets up the action sequences as if he’s building the foundation for a monster movie.)
The screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand is overloaded with inside jargon that would be decipherable only to oil rig engineers and technicians. And once the rig explodes, it’s so dark and Berg’s camera is so hyperactive and the actors are covered in oil — making it impossible at times to decipher exactly whom we’re watching and what they’re trying to accomplish.
But Berg does a solid job of capturing the intensity and ferocity of the explosion, and how terrifying it must have been for all onboard when they realized the rig was going down and their only hope was to head for the waters — which were literally on fire.
Wahlberg’s Mike Williams shifts into full-on action hero mode (it’s visual hyperbole, but thrilling to watch) as he makes astounding leaps and performs near superhero-level stunts. Russell’s Mr. Jimmy is a steady leader even though he’s been seriously injured. And Hudson’s Felicia is the symbol of all the families whose lives were forever changed that night.
And the BP execs, quite deservedly, are given the cinematic equivalent of Babu’s Wagging Finger of Shame.
Summit Entertainment presents a film directed by Peter Berg and written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand. Running time: 97 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for prolonged intense disaster sequences and related disturbing images, and brief strong language). Opens Friday at local theaters.