It’s difficult to know how to respond to Deepwater Horizon. As a disaster movie, it follows all the tenets of the genre and gives us the excitement and heroism we expect. But as a real-life story that involves people who actually died, it’s difficult to separate Hollywood moviemaking from docudrama. Filmmaker Paul Greengrass has pulled this off amazingly well in such films as Bloody Sunday and United 93, in part by using little-known actors. On the other hand Clint Eastwood just made this work in Sully by casting Hollywood’s best-loved star, Tom Hanks, as a celebrated real-life hero.
We’ve seen Mark Wahlberg play this kind of part before and he does it well. He and director Peter Berg collaborated successfully on Lone Survivor, another true-life saga. Bringing in familiar faces may have helped finance Deepwater Horizon and might even make it a box-office hit, but it put me off-balance. Am I cheering for a movie hero or a real person? Berg uses some non-actors in this picture but the focus is on his leading players and while they turn in good performances, it’s hard to forget that we’re watching famous stars. Does wanting to “boo” John Malkovich portraying the “bad guy” from British Petroleum trivialize the catastrophe being dramatized here?
Deepwater Horizon doesn’t pretend to tell the whole story of how a poorly-maintained oil rig caused one of the greatest disasters in the history of our planet, but it makes its points succinctly and effectively using TV news footage to wrap up the story. Even so, the blurry line between fiction and drama left me unsettled.