Thursday, October 13, 2016

Deepwater Horizon (Peter Berg)

Oil's well that ends well
The Deepwater Horizon was a specially designed ship meant to prospect in waters five thousand feet deep and drill for oil. I'd read about them back in grade school (far too many years ago), and for a science project tried constructing a model. The principle was simple enough: build a platform with pontoons capable of floating, bolt said platform to the sea floor (actually the bottom of an aquarium tank). If the pontoons are watertight and the bolts secure the platform is stable--buoyancy kept the chains tight, anchoring the platform against wind and rolling waves. I remember assembling the model out of wood and plastic, with metal rods and black tape to simulate the drilling tower; unfortunately the tank I used leaked, and the project was never presented.

So: semi-submersible dynamically positioning rigs--and a movie about the most famous such rig in history, with big explosions thrown in? Color me interested

The movie's biggest star as it turns out isn't so much the Hollywood actors but the set itself. Deepwater Horizon is an intimidating presence, an over nine thousand square foot pipe-and-girder monster with the accompanying shudders and creaks and groans you imagine from such a massive creature, raising its skirts high above the blue Gulf waters. Director Peter Berg in an NPR interview revealed that BP (unsurprisingly) refused to cooperate with the production, blocking them from talking to key people, or from even boarding a rig. They ended up building one of their own: three million pounds of steel went into an 85% scale mockup situated in the parking lot of an abandoned Six Flags park, dominating a two-and-a-half million gallon water tank; to reproduce the disaster they detonated several titanic explosions and lit the whole thing on fire

Quite a spectacle, and not a lot of digital enhancement far as I can tell (helps that the climax takes place at night). When Berg sits back and lets the set burn and blow you're rocked back by the sheer size and force of what he's doing--Orson Welles' famous 'train set' adage writ larger-than-life on the big screen.  

The movie's problem isn't the train set though but how Berg plays with it. He establishes a jittery editing rhythm even when it's just two people at home talking; there's no relaxation, no moment of respite in his movies. No modulation either--he starts at a high level of tension and foreboding (a magenta tie the color of bad luck; a gull smashing unaccountably into glass a la The Birds) with nowhere else to go.

When the bird really hits the fan you want to see what's going on but can't--Berg moves in too close, shakes the camera while overcutting (and not for the first time either). Occasionally he'll pull back to a long shot and give you your money's worth: a breathtaking view of the rig dressed in tattered flames, or (earlier in the picture) a spectacular shot of sludge and crude bursting the rig's every orifice, a dark halo foreshadowing the death to come.

The incoherence makes you long for the more assured hand of O say Paul WS Anderson, whose Pompeii was edited at a swift pace yet remained spatially coherent (it's possible, yes) and whose signature shot is the divine POV--looking down from a godlike height to orient oneself and apprehend the situation at a glance (also a distancing device to tamp down melodrama; also a way of suggesting Anderson's own view: that we're all pawns manipulated by unknown powers in a vast yet ultimately meaningless competition (it's the struggle that matters, not the game)). 

Or better yet and more relevant: The China Syndrome, James Bridges' cautionary thriller about the dangers not of pressurized petroleum but of runaway nuclear reactions. Like Deepwater the earlier film depicts in semi-documentary style the causes and consequences of an industrial calamity; like Deepwater the earlier film tackles the knotty problem of introducing basic nuclear physics and the even more intricate process of running a nuclear plant to the casual viewer (if early in Deepwater a child calls drilling a well 'taming the monster' you wonder what she'd say to a water-cooled atom plant). 

Unlike Berg, Bridges is a terrifically understated filmmaker; unlike Berg, Bridges keeps his camera stable his editing precise. Unlike Berg (but like Anderson), Bridges seems to know how to use point-of-view--where Berg sends his camera zooming up and down the drillshaft (showing us ominous images of bubbles rising from a crack in the sea floor, Bridges dazzles us with blinking lights falling needles spinning dials, with the only glimpse of what's happening inside provided by a grainy video feed.

It's a curious distancing device especially in this age of digitally created POV shots that can go literally anywhere, and a deliberately chosen one: it gives us only the information the plant operators would know when they know it. It suggests the penetrating powers of observation and insight granted to these workers at the same time underlining the limits of those powers--we realize that we know much of what's going on inside the containment building but not everything, and awareness of that limit, of the tremendous dark lurking beyond the boundaries of our knowledge, that can be terrifying.  Against Bridges' intelligently constructed vision, Deepwater's straightlaced apple-pie affirmative world of heroic blue-collar workers seems limited, if not downright blinkered.*

*(Don't just mean the filmmaking: Bridges' view of the plant workers and of the increasingly liberal journalist following their story seems more nuanced--the film respects their dedication and hard work, yet is aware of their role as flawed often unwitting collaborators in the coming catastrophe)

First published in Businessworld 10.6.16

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