My Biggest Surprise of the Year? Deepwater Horizon
Maybe this is unfair. On principal I typically land squarely in the "movies shouldn't get recognition for not being terrible" camp, but Deepwater Horizon is an exception. It's surely not the only exception. Woody Allen has spent half of his life aspiring to making "not terrible" movies.
It would be an understatement to say that, going into Deepwater Horizon, my expectations were low. The feeling I had walking into the theater was something akin to the first time you eat brussel sprouts as an adult. My brain insisted it would be terrible but I kept hearing people say it wasn't bad. Well, congratulations Peter (and I mean this sincerely) Deepwater Horizon is the brussel sprouts of movies.
Much like brussel sprouts the vanilla version of Deepwater Horizon is terrible. It's a white washed piece of corporate propaganda with just enough good 'ol patriotism to leave a bad taste in your mouth. Instead the movie that Peter Berg made found the right combination of spices to turn a terrible idea into a great movie.
Peter Berg has ruined a lot of movies in his career. Some weren't entirely his fault (Battleship) some definitely were (Lone Survivor). He lands firmly in the Bay family of 'filmmakers without principal'. The field of exceptional talent that spend the majority of their careers pandering to the lowest common denominator (whoops my elitism is showing let's get this back on track).
There were a lot of pitfalls that Berg managed to avoid here. (Which he usually doesn't)
Most importantly Berg (and the shadowy cabal of studio screenwriters who penned the script) never shifted blame or tried to white wash the events of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. They very clearly showed the corporate negligence that lead to the largest oil spill in the industry's history. There's no scene where BP looks like the hero. There's no scene where a single tear rolls down the cheek of an executive's face as he watches the news coverage. At the same time the filmmakers refuse to completely write off everyone in the company. The company's stand in, played by John Malkovich, isn't completely demonized (although he never approaches sympathetic). He is a human being who is making bad decisions.
Berg also shifts the film's focus from the event to the characters. This is not a movie about the Deepwater Horizon explosion. This is a movie about the people who died on the Deepwater Horizon. This is not the first time the Berg has done this in his film's. The major difference is, here, the characters are not canonized. They are people not saints. Berg finally trusts the audience enough to believe we would mourn a life lost simply because they are a person. Not because they talked about how much their three daughters would miss them if they never made it back home.
Finally this was one of the most thrilling movie going experiences I had all year. The action is coherent, the stakes are clear, and the pacing is near perfect. I cared whether or not the characters made it off the rig alive, and I felt it every time someone didn't.
I'll be the first one to admit that Deepwater Horizon is not a perfect film. Its lead is underwritten, it has one of the worst opening scenes I've ever seen, and it is just as problematic as every other major studio film. Still, Deepwater Horizon is a good movie. It's gripping, honest, and well made (there's a reason it's nominated for two Oscars).
Studios produce twenty-plus movies like this a year and 99.99% of them are terrible. I, for one, think it's worth noting when they get it right.
I doubt I'll ever write positively about a Peter Berg film again.