In one of their strangest coincidences of this year, 2016 saw two film dramatizations of recent US national disasters, starring Mark Wahlberg and directed by Peter Berg, released three months apart. The first was "Deepwater Horizon," about the events surrounding the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster of 2010. The second was "Patriot's Day," about the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013. As docu-dramas go, they're pretty decent, though they still run into a lot of the usual problems that these movies always contend with.
The better film, and the film with the better argument for being made in the first place, is "Deepwater Horizon," which does a good job of humanizing the oil rig workers who fought to contain the disaster as it unfolded, and providing some insight into why and how the drilling operations went so awry. Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, an engineer, and Gina Rodriguez, Ethan Suplee, and Dylan O'Brien play other workers under rig supervisor Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell). The main villain is the oil company representative, Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), who ignores one safety protocol after another. We get a step by step look at how the real life events played out, but aside from an eye-rolling explanation of how oil rigs work from Mike's daughter in the opening few minutes, the film doesn't get into the nitty gritty of technical terms or processes. How the characters react tells us all we need to know.
"Deepwater Horizon" builds up in a nice slow boil, eventually delivering some pretty harrowing action scenes and disaster scenarios. The effects and sound design are excellent, especially when the oil rig goes into full, fiery meltdown. Clearly there were some invented dramatics to play up the heroism of the workers, but nothing too egregious. At the same time, it's careful to acknowledge that there were eleven casualties of the disaster, and unquantifiable amounts of damage done to the Gulf of Mexico. I wish that we'd gotten a little more depth to the characters, who are all fairly flat types. John Malkovitch certainly has the most memorable performance, as he chews the scenery as only he can. Wahlberg and Rodriguez make decent leads, and Kurt Russell is at his most paternally loveable, but nobody has much to do beyond the usual disaster movie schtick.
"Patriot's Day" is a more complicated venture, because there are far more players involved, and events play out over several days. This time Wahlberg plays an invented police sergeant, Tommy Saunders, who somehow manages to be on the scene for nearly every major development in the Boston Marathon bombing, from the initial attack, to the end of the manhunt for the bombers. This is by far the biggest liberty that Peter Berg takes with the facts. "Patriot's Day" is pretty good about covering multiple POVs and getting us invested in several different stories and characters. John Goodman, JK Simmons, and Kevin Bacon play other law enforcement officials. Rachel Brosnahan and Christopher O'Shea play a pair of the victims. Jimmy O. Yang ends up carrying a good chunk of the film as the poor guy who got carjacked by the Tsarnaevs when they were trying to make their escape. And we also follow the Tsarnaevs themselves, played by Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze, as they carry out the bombing and their subsequent crimes.
The individual sequences are very strong, and it's interesting to see some of the smaller stories, like the interrogation of the elder Tsarnaev's wife, played by Melissa Benoist. However, the film offers little context or new insights on the familiar events, and it's clear that a documentary would have been more effective at accomplishing some of the same things. To the filmmakers' credit, pains were clearly taken to be as sensitive as possible to each and every real life person depicted, and "Patriot's Day" even ends with a lengthy epilogue celebrating Boston and its inhabitants. As these sorts of docudramas go, this is a pretty good one, and Mark Wahlberg gets more to do in his role, but there's still a tangible uneasiness about mining the tragedy for too much entertainment that impacts the whole film. I wonder if I'll still feel this way about it couple years further in the future, when the real life events have receded further into the past.