Deepwater Horizon

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It appears director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg are on their way to completing a trilogy of movies which aim to show audiences how Americans stand up and take care of their own during the most trying of times. In 2013 they gave us “Lone Survivor” which dramatized the unsuccessful United States Navy SEALs counter-insurgent mission Operation Red Wings, and before 2016 ends we will get “Patriots Day” which deals with the Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent terrorist manhunt. But before that we get “Deepwater Horizon” which focuses on the offshore drilling rig of the same name which exploded in 2010 and created the worst oil spill in U.S. history. As you can expect, it is a riveting motion picture which provides audiences with a visceral experience even though we know how the story will end.

Wahlberg portrays Mike Williams, one of the chief rig workers on Deepwater Horizon, and as the movie starts we see him spending precious time with his beautiful wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and daughter. Before he leaves to go to work for a couple of weeks, Mike’s daughter shows him a science project she is working on which involves poking a hole in the bottom of a Coke can and then stuffing it up with honey. But, of course, it explodes all over the family dinner table as it foreshadows the terrible disaster which is yet to come.

Berg does great work portraying the working environment these oil rig workers endure on a daily basis as their work is always dangerous, and their animosity towards the executives of BP and Halliburton, a company whose name has long since become a four-letter word, is completely understandable. While these workers aim to do their job safely, the execs are eager to increase their profits as the drilling schedule has fallen behind by forty days. Profit always seems to reign supreme over the rights of the workers who might never reach the level of the 1%, and this is further proof of how the 80’s never left us.

The foreshadowing of the explosion becomes a little too much as Berg employs Steve Jablonsky’s music score to an unnecessary degree. Jablonsky’s score booms way too much as we watch the beginnings of this explosion which emanate far below the ocean’s surface. It alerts us way too early that a natural disaster is about to occur, and this could have instead been a time where we could have seen proof of how silence is golden because, as Gary Oldman’s character from “The Professional” said, we like these quiet little moments before the storm, and that’s regardless of whether or not it reminds us of the Ludwig Van Beethoven’s music.

When things do go horrifically bad on the rig, Berg captures it in a way which feels horrific and almost unbearable as he captures the disaster with a lot of handheld footage. When the main pipe goes bust, it’s not like your average disaster movie where things go out of control but in a not so dangerous way. Bodies are flung with full force against metal railings, and it doesn’t take long for the viewer to feel how painful the deaths and injuries on display are. To say what happened here was a natural disaster is an understatement as the chemicals underneath the earth’s surface make their way to the surface to where it feels like planet is having serious revenge on us.

Wahlberg is an actor who can authentically portray a blue collar worker without any movie star swagger. With a role like Mike Williams, he never ever lets his ego get the best of him or tries to show off in some obnoxious way. You may never lose sight of the fact you are watching Mark Wahlberg on the big screen, but he always succeeds in portraying a character who spends his days doing hard work for an honest living. Not many actors of his stature can pull that off these days.

Then we have Kurt Russell, a veteran actor you can never ever go wrong with, who plays Jimmy Harrell, the man who is very serious about ensuring the safety of his workers. The oil company’s profits may suffer, but that is the least of Jimmy’s problems. Russell makes it clear from the get go where Jimmy’s priorities lie, and you never doubt him for a second. Even when Jimmy suffers greatly from the rig’s explosion to where one of his eyes is swollen shut, which quickly reminds us of Russell’s role as Snake Plissken from “Escape From New York,” he is still infinitely determined to ensure the safety of his workers.

Another standout performance to be found in “Deepwater Horizon” comes from Gina Rodriguez who plays Andrea Fleytas, an oil rig worker prepared to do what’s necessary to save lives but is stopped by the men who somehow think they know better. Rodriguez throws herself into the role to where you never doubt her for a second, and it makes you all the angrier when she is admonished by her superiors who are afraid to make decisions under pressure. She certainly knows her way around an oil rig better than her beat up Mustang.

As for Kate Hudson, she does fine work with an underwritten role. As Felicia, she has to be stuck at home and worried sick about her husband and the situation on the rig, so we only get to see so much of her in this movie. However, her role is an important one as she puts a human face on those who have to suffer from a distance. Besides, it is so nice to see Hudson in a good movie after she appeared in the cinematic monstrosity that was “Mother’s Day.”

But the biggest star of “Deepwater Horizon” is Berg as he thrusts into a real life story with gusto and intensity. As a director, he has never been one to give us a decent time at the movies. Whether it’s “The Rundown,” “Lone Survivor” or “The Kingdom,” Berg wants us pinned to our seats and gasping for air. He achieves this once again with “Deepwater Horizon,” and in the process pays tribute to those who lost their lives while doing their jobs. It makes me look forward to his next movie, “Patriots Day,” all the more.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Sully

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Tom Hanks has been the go to guy for playing American heroes and for good reason; he never plays characters as people gunning to become heroes at any given opportunity. Whether it is Captain Miller in “Saving Private Ryan,” Jim Lovell in “Apollo 13,” Andrew Beckett in “Philadelphia,” Forrest Gump or even Jimmy Dugan in “A League of Their Own,” Hanks has long been the master of playing ordinary Americans who are just trying to get by in the rough and tumble real world the best way they know how. None of these characters set out for the adulation of others, but for a sense of purpose and justice in a world which at times seems devoid of it.

Now we can add Chesley Sullenberger to Hanks’ list of noble American characters with his excellent performance in “Sully,” Clint Eastwood’s dramatization of the airline pilot’s dramatic landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. We all know this story of how the flight suffered dual engine failure shortly after takeoff due to a flock of Canadian geese flying straight at them, but Eastwood and Hanks dig deeper into what went on as Sullenberger and his First Officer Jeffery Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are soon drilled by the National Transportation Safety Board as tests imply the left engine on the plane did not fail, meaning they still could have landed at LaGuardia Airport or one in New Jersey instead of on the water.

Sullenberger was quickly hailed a national hero for successfully landing the plane and saving all the lives aboard it, but this movie shows him more troubled by what he did than proud. He becomes plagued with nightmares and PTSD over how the flight could have ended in a catastrophic way. Also, with him and Skiles being thrown into instant stardom for their actions, Sullenberger ends up feeling isolated from everyone around him as people are eager to hug him or shake his hand in congratulating him for what he accomplished.

What I especially liked about “Sully” is how it shows the damaging effect sudden fame can have on an individual. While some might be super excited about appearing on “Late Night with David Letterman” or being interviewed by Katie Couric (who plays herself in this movie), Sullenberger finds him retreating from all the media attention as he never asked for it. While he constantly reaches out to his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney), they are separated by thousands of miles as she resides on the other side of the country. Even as they talk on the phone, the space between them feels quite profound and loneliness soon becomes his best friend.

Hanks’ performance as Sullenberger reminds us of why we look to him to play those people we see as American heroes; they are people not quick to jump into the spotlight and appear unsure as to what to do once they are thrust into it. Hanks never sets out to impersonate Sullenberger, but instead seeks to capture his state of mind following this unforgettable incident. The Oscar winning actor does excellent work in showing how Sullenberger is beset by tremendous self-doubt as he is forced to wonder if he made the right decision in light of all the computer generated evidence presented to him.

Hanks is also supported by a strong supporting cast of actors whom can never be expected to let him or Eastwood down at any second. Eckhart is the definition of strong support as his character of First Officer Jeff Skiles stands by Sullenberger every step of the way. There’s also Laura Linney who plays Sully’s wife, Lorraine, who does her best to support her husband over the phone any chance she gets. While in some ways Linney has a thankless role to play here, she justifies Lorraine’s presence in the film as the character is the support Sully needs through the most trying of times.

One of the key things Eastwood gets across here as a director is how the human element has to take precedence of the technological one as not everything can be solved or reasoned out completely by computers. This is especially interesting as Eastwood is best known for directing movies which deal heavily in human nature and its ever-growing complexity, but this time he has some nifty tools to work with. Eastwood got to shoot much of “Sully” with IMAX cameras, and seeing this movie on the nearest IMAX screen is a must.

The plane crash sequence is masterfully directed as we see pilots and flight attendants at their most professional during a moment of crisis. While we all know how things will turn out here, it is still a pulse pounding scene as we are with everyone on this plane from when they take off to when they land on the Hudson. The sound of the engines dying down and of silence in midair is unnerving, and it’s not every day you see a commercial jet land in the water.

Eastwood also makes us remember how the human element plays as big part in movies as do visual effects. He has not set out to give us a biopic on Sullenberger, and that’s even though there are moments sprinkled throughout which show his beginnings as a pilot and other significant experiences which molded him into the pilot he became. Instead, he is far more interested in the impact this one miraculous moment can have on a person’s life and of the obstacles it places in front of them.

Thank goodness Eastwood did not put the term “based on a true story” at the beginning of “Sully.” We all know this happened. Does Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki play loose with the facts? Sure, but most movies like this do. The NTSB has objected to the way they have been portrayed here, and they do come across as overly villainous at times. But in terms of the story’s dramatic arc, it makes sense why they were portrayed as such here. To his credit, Sullenberger requested that the names of the real-life NTSB investigators, which were featured in the original draft, be changed as he felt it would be unfair to associate them with the changes in the story. Whatever the case, “Sully” is still a very compelling and gripping motion picture to sit through.

Some still question whether Chesley Sullenberger deserves to be called a hero as they believe he still could have landed at an airport. Others I know personally have accused him of using his pulpit to trash professional pilots for no good reason. But neither Eastwood or Hanks made this movie to deify Sullenberger as to do so would seriously cheapen the story for no good reason. They simply show us an ordinary man who was forced to make a quick decision in order to save the lives of many, and he was not out to call himself more heroic than others for his actions.

But also, “Sully” shows how an entire life can too often be boiled down, often unfairly so, to a single moment which renders all other accomplishments moot. In today’s media and technology saturated culture, people are never defined too broadly anymore but instead by specific actions more than anything else. The Buddha once said the merit of a whole life can be undone in a single moment. This could have been the fate Sullenberger would have been forced to accept, but he rose to the occasion and saved many lives in the process. As this movie shows, he was never out to be a hero. He was simply a human being doing his job.

And if nothing else, the movie shows Americans, especially those in New York, rising to the occasion and helping the passengers get to the shore safely. However which way you want to look at the story of US Airways Flight 1549, it did provide us with a happy ending we desperately wanted to have.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.