Bostonians wondering what to expect from Patriots Day, the upcoming film chronicling the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, might consider heading to movie theaters this weekend. Patriots Day director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg have another film based on a recent tragedy hitting theaters on Friday: Deepwater Horizon.
Deepwater Horizon is the name of the oil rig that exploded in 2010, killing 11 men onboard and dumping approximately 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico before crews could cap the leak almost three months later. Leading up to the movie’s release, Berg has made clear that it’s less about the BP oil spill and its effects than it is about the people who lost their lives on the oil rig. The film’s poster says it is “inspired by a true story of real life heroes,” and all 11 men who died are played by actors in the film.
Nevertheless, Deepwater Horizon is a flawed film, and if Patriots Day repeats its missteps, the people most deeply affected by the Marathon bombings may upset by the final product.
Character development sacrificed
Berg has spoken at length about wanting to spend the “second half” (his term) of his directing career telling real stories about real people. Unfortunately, the real people of Deepwater Horizon get lost in the shuffle. The only characters with even a hint of a backstory are electrician Mike Williams (Wahlberg), installation manager Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), and crew member Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez).
Mike gets the lion’s share of screentime, acting as a surrogate for the audience as he walks around the oil rig and greets each and every person aboard, shooting out rapid-fire one liners full of engineering jargon made all the more indecipherable by Louisiana accents of mixed quality. There is a long stretch of the film that essentially repeats the same scenario at least a dozen times:
Mike: Hey, Guy 1. How are things with [oil thing]?
Guy 1: [Long, jargon-filled reply that the oil thing isn’t working, but BP doesn’t care.]
Mike: Damn. What about you, Guy 2? (Repeat.)
You can tell this was Berg’s attempt at honoring each of the victims by giving them their moment onscreen, and it’s an admirable one. But as soon as Mike walks away, they’re forgotten, and indistinguishable from the rest of the hard-hat wearing crew. Given that Patriots Day has a massive cast, and Wahlberg himself plays a character who is a composite of several actual police officers, it’s a legitimate concern that real individuals could be portrayed one-dimensionally.
Instead of focusing on character development, the first half of Deepwater Horizon is concerned with the science behind the oil rig. Berg attended “oil school” with petroleum engineers to learn all of the science behind deepwater drilling, and it shows. Even when Mike’s elementary-aged daughter uses a can of Coke and honey to explain the drilling process, it feels a bit like a college lecture. Instead of breezy and informative, like The Big Short was for the mortgage crisis or The Martian was for… living on Mars, Deepwater Horizon gets buried in the details.
A deep dive into the mechanics of deepwater drilling would have been fine if Berg had accomplished his stated goal of properly telling the story of the oil rig’s crew. Instead, walking out of the theater, you know very little about the 11 men who lost their lives on Deepwater Horizon. Hopefully the same won’t be said for the real people portrayed in Patriots Day.
The trauma of history repeated
In both of his previous films based on true events (Kingdom, Lone Survivor) and in his complete works of fiction (Battleship), Berg proved adept at directing concussive, nerve-wracking action scenes. And so it’s no surprise that as much as the first half of Deepwater Horizon is full of repetitive walking and talking, the second half of the film feels like a single, prolonged explosion. The entire oil rig explosion is an assault on the senses, a visceral experience that will glue you to your seat in one minute while forcing you to look away in the next. (A scene in which Kurt Russell painfully pulls a huge shard of glass out of his foot pushes the boundaries of the film’s PG-13 rating.)
It’s undoubtedly effective filmmaking, and somewhat makes up for the pacing of the film’s first half. But some of those most directly affected by the tragedy had mixed feelings.
Arleen Weise, whose son Adam Weise died aboard the rig, told the Associated Press she was still dealing with feelings of anger and grief after seeing an advanced screening.
“The first viewing of it is shocking for a family member to see that,” Weise told the AP. “Hearing and seeing are always two different things.”
Shelley Anderson lost her husband Jason Anderson that day, and told the AP that her 7-year-old son, Ryver, who was 15 months old when Jason died, saw a trailer for the movie and asked, “Is that when daddy died?”
“Now he’s going to remember seeing it on TV. I don’t like that,” she told the AP. “It is so real to us that it hurts to experience it over and over again.”
Unless Patriots Day marks a radical departure in Berg’s filmmaking approach, it will feature intense, graphic scenes of the Boylston Street explosions. There will be blood, shrapnel, and loss of limbs. While some may appreciate seeing a realistic display of what happened in 2013, others may find something that hews so close to reality off-putting.
Why now? Why ever?
Ultimately, there may be no “right way” to make a film like Deepwater Horizon or Patriots Day. Certain people will like it; others won’t. While some of those who lost loved ones aboard the oil rig had criticisms about Deepwater Horizon, others praised the film, including Billy Anderson, the father of Jason Anderson.
“It actually helped me, seeing the way they handled it,” Billy Anderson told the AP. “It gave me a little bit of closure.”
“I do feel honored that they called my husband a hero,” Courtney Kemp Robertson, the widow of Roy Wyatt Kemp, who also died during the event, told the AP. “I feel very proud of that, but I was already proud of my husband before a movie was ever made.”
With Deepwater Horizon, Berg felt compelled to tell a story most people ignored in the aftermath of what became known as the BP oil spill. The righteous anger directed at BP was more about the millions of gallons of crude oil leaked into the Gulf of Mexico, not the lives lost due to their seeming disregard for safety protocols in the interest of profit.
Amid anti-oil protests outside the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Berg told Yahoo Movies he wanted to show that, often, people who work for oil companies are just people.
“Those [protestors] who are saying, ‘Heroes? There are no heroes on that rig, these are greedy oil people’ — no they weren’t,” Berg said. “These were simple guys, family men, doing their jobs, trying to be as safe as they could.”
But there is no such confusion surrounding the Marathon bombings. The people of Boston remember those whose lives were lost, honor those who put their lives on the line to protect the city, and feel anger at those who perpetrated the attack. Without the pretense of telling an untold story or righting a wrong, it’s worth asking why Patriots Day exists at all.
Ultimately, Deepwater Horizon is a film doing its best to respectfully chronicle a tragedy, and Patriots Day will likely be the same. For those most profoundly affected by the Marathon bombings, for whom the terrifying memories of that day will never fade, that may not be enough.