Deepwater Horizon (2016) and Patriots Day (2016)


Editor’s note: Since this entry is a review of two movies, the maximum word count is 544 (272 a piece).

When and how is it appropriate to capture recent events on film? These are questions raised by the last three films from director Peter Berg that have Mark Wahlberg at their center. Berg’s last two entries in this genre which came out in 2016—Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day—are both skillfully made, amusingly cast, offer moments of levity amongst dire situations, give hope in the face of loss and evil, and exemplify the resiliency of the human spirit; but they are also seemingly procedural and because of their closeness in time and looseness in reality to the events they inspire, they may end up being unmemorable.

Deepwater Horizon is a technical feat. It is baffling how real it seems and it is a thrilling ride about the horror these men (and women) faced in the disaster that was the BP oil spill. The media was quick to condemn the corporate malfeasance and environmental repercussions, thereby bypassing the human stories—both the loss of life and miraculous stories of survival and heroism.

There are, however, major flaws. The BP oil men, especially John Malkovich’s character, are outsized caricatures and seemed to be out of a western, rather than a based-on-true-story film. There are some events and scenes that never could have happened and it turns real men and women into superheroes (or martyrs or villains) and that is unfair. Also, one of the bigger problems of Berg’s oeuvre is his weakness for cheesy symbolism and overt foreshadowing.

Patriots Day was the much more poignant and multifaceted film of the two. It is about the local, state, and federal authorities tasked with solving the case and healing the city after the Boston Marathon bombings; an account of the perpetrators of hate and violence, the Tsarnaev brothers; and the city of Boston.

Like its predecessors it was brilliantly constructed. It’s a better script, though it was a web of a story that required more nuance. The actors (some of them) were given more things to do. Goodman, Bacon, and Simmons were great in their character-actor parts per usual.

Wahlberg’s detective-cum-street-cop character was an obvious amalgamation of multiple real policemen. At most times it wasn’t too distracting, but it was a cheap trick. Wahlberg is the definition of the “Everyman Heroguy” that Bruce Willis perfected—just vulnerable enough to earn real emotion and just badass enough to kick some serious terrorist butt.

The documentary-style dénouement that allows the real people to comment on the events and its effects on their lives is a certain tear-jerker and allows the hope to shine through.

The conclusion to the questions of when? and how? is thus: Berg is getting better and better at making this type of film and others will follow suit; economically they are a “big” alternative to the Cape Movies; these (mostly tragic) events contain multitudes of untold personal stories that should be told; and the media and culture move at such hyper-speed that these near events, although not that far away on the timeline, are literally and figuratively history by the end of production of one of these films. So: keep making them Pete and Mark. We’ll watch.

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