Wash, Rinse, Repeat

On the poster for BlacKkKlansman it’s noted that the film is “based on a crazy, outrageous, incredible true story.” With the additional modifiers, it’s reasonable to wonder if the movie’s trying too hard to convince you it’s the truth, and a fair portion of the film is more ”based on” than “true story.” However, a crazy, outrageous, and incredible amount of the story is in fact true. Sadly, it’s even more relevant today than it was when the events took place in the 1970s.

It is the perfect story for Spike Lee to tell. Lee has dealt overtly and covertly with racial themes for over thirty years now. Sometimes it’s front and center, such as in Do The Right Thing, Malcom X, or Bamboozled. Other times it’s subtext within the story; good examples are Inside Man and Miracle of St. Anna. Lee can also move easily from fiction to documentary. He had a towering achievement with his devastating 4-plus hour dissection of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, When the Levees Broke. Three years have passed since his last “joint” (as he calls his films), the modern-day version of the Greek comedy “Lysistrata” set in Chicago, Chi-Raq. Like Giancarlo Stanton of his beloved New York Yankees, when Lee gets a pitch that’s in his wheelhouse, he hits it out of the park. BlacKkKlansman is the equivalent of a hanging breaking ball, and he crushes it.

In 1974, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) becomes the first black member of the Colorado Springs Police Department. He’s tucked away in the property room and faces prejudice on the part of members on the force. But then he’s pulled out for an undercover assignment – monitoring a speech given by civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) under the auspices of the black student union at the university. By then Carmichael had embraced a pan-African philosophy and changed his name to Kwame Ture. While his assignment is to observe, Ron is drawn to the ideology expressed by Ture – and to the head of the black student union, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier). As a result of his work, Ron’s permanently assigned to the intelligence division of the department.

When he sees a small ad in the paper for the local Klan, Ron calls the number listed and gets a call back from the head of the chapter (Ryan Eggold). Ron spouts off racist things he’s heard and is invited to become a member. He obviously can’t show up himself, so he recruits another undercover officer, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to play him. Soon they’re inside the Klan, and even make contact with the Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace).

Washington, who for the last few years has starred with Dwayne Johnson on the HBO series “Ballers,” is the son of Denzel, a frequent collaborator of Lee’s. Lee wanted Washington from the start, and it’s a perfect bit of casting as he blends sincerity and outrage with a wry wit. He’s well-matched with Driver, who can speak volumes without saying a word. The screenplay, written by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Lee, creates the character of Flip pretty much out of whole cloth, since Stallworth kept his partner’s identity under wraps and only referred to him as Chuck. Flip becomes a stand-in for some in the film’s audience, a man who hasn’t thought much about racism until he’s forced to confront it. A bit of a surprise is how effectively Grace inhabits the role of David Duke. He nails the banality of evil, the Grand Wizard who covers his racism with a blanket of politically-correct lexicon.

Lee expands the story at the beginning with the rough cut of a ‘50s era segregationist pleasantly explaining his racial theories while exploding in invective when he messes up. Alec Baldwin is perfection in the cameo role (just as he’s been on a certain Saturday night program this past year). The expansion also occurs at the end, where Lee gives the audience three endings. The first qualifies as a standard Hollywood ending, putting everything right in the world, while the second is closer to what actually happened at the end of the investigation. The third, though, is a gut punch. It pulls the story into the present, and even includes a news footage appearance by the real David Duke, doing a decent impression of Topher Grace.

When the ugly underbelly of racism in this country breaks into the open, people of good heart understand it must be cleansed. It feels, though, with the sheer number of instances in the past few years, that we’re stuck in the eternal loop of the classic directions on a shampoo bottle: Wash, Rinse, Repeat. If you follow those directions exactly, you’ll be caught in a loop that keeps you in the tub forever. But it that’s the price to eliminate racism, so be it. Some stains require multiple washings, especially when they’ve been allowed to set into the fabric of clothes, or the fabric of a country.

If you’d like to know more about the real story versus the reel story, click here. (Caution: Spoilers)

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A Companion Piece for “Black Panther”

Marvel’s Black Panther has broken box office records, hanging onto the top spot for five straight weeks after its release. While it had a built-in pedigree with its place in the Marvel Universe, along with Chadwick Boseman’s impressive turn in Captain America: Civil War, writer-director Ryan Coogler’s film went far outside the normal lane for superhero movies to deal with social justice and posit what Africa could have developed into without the scourge of colonialism and the slave trade. Two years ago, more modest film dealt with that colonialism and its base in racism. As a companion piece to Black Panther, check out 2016’s A United Kingdom, now available through HBO.

The movie is based on the book “Colour Bar” by Susan Williams, which tells the true story of King Seretse Khama of Bechuanaland (later Botswana) and his English wife Ruth Williams, who was a clerk at Lloyd’s of London when they met in 1947. Julius Nyerere, a teacher at that time who later became President of Tanzania, called their romance “one of the great love stories of the world,” though the interracial couple had to overcome many obstacles before achieving a happy ending.

Director Amma Asante did Belle in 2013, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the mixed-race daughter of an English admiral being raised in 18th Century Georgian England. That film was also based on a true story, and sumptuously recreated the period while dealing with an all-too-contemporary problem. She applies the same vision to recreate drab-gray post-WWII England and sun-drenched Africa. It helps that she filmed much of the movie on location in Botswana. The screenplay by Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky) is most faithful in how it presents the love story. With Seretse’s interactions with the British government, Hibbert has taken understandable liberties to present the basic details of an 18-year struggle within 111 minutes.

In A United Kingdom, Ruth (Rosamund Pike) accompanies her sister to a dance organized by the Missionary Society. There she meets Seretse (David Oyelowo), who’s studying law in London at the time. They bond over a love of jazz music – their favorite group was the Ink Spots – and their relationship develops from there. Seretse tells Ruth his story, how he is the grandson of Khama III, the first ruler of Bechuanaland. His grandfather had appealed to Queen Victoria to make the nation a British protectorate to counter the colonialism of South Africa and Rhodesia. Bechuanaland was one of the poorest countries in the world at that time, with only a hundred people holding the equivalency of a high school diploma, and less than a handful with a college education (including Seretse). His elderly father passed away when he was four, and his uncle Tshekedi Khama (Vusi Kunene) both raised Seretse and served as regent. Now his schooling is finished and he must return to take up his duties as king, but he can’t imagine his life without Ruth. He proposes to her on the Embankment near Parliament.

Ruth’s parents refuse to accept the engagement, but that’s just the start of their problems. Ruth is visited at her work by Sir Alistair Canning (Jack Davenport), the King’s representative for Southern Africa, who explains in the most paternalistic way that she can’t marry Seretse. The Archbishop of Canterbury refuses to sanction a church wedding, and Tshekedi makes clear his refusal to accept Ruth. But the couple wed at a register’s office and then set out for Africa. More trials, including exile, lie in store for the couple.

Canning is a made-up character; in a sense, the name has been changed to protect the guilty. The real Seretse described the scene when he was sent into exile by the British government. He said the official who did it was “as unfeeling as if he was asking me to give up smoking, or surrender old school (examination) papers that I had accumulated while at Oxford. I doubt that any man has been asked to give up his birthright in such cold, calculating tones.”

Part of what led the British Government to act as it did was the mineral wealth of South Africa. President Malan was enacting apartheid at the same time as Ruth and Seretse’s marriage, but the Brits allowed it because in the wake of the war they needed the income that access to South Africa’s gold and diamonds brought them. It goes deeper than that, though. Pike’s Ruth mentions that in England at that time you could see signs outside pubs and restaurants that said: “No Irish, no blacks, no dogs.” The film does an excellent job showing the casual paternalism of the whites who felt their “civilized” history gave them the right to dictate to the native people while they ignored the indigenous culture. The movie also identifies how the British played factions against each other to weaken both sides.

Ultimately, Seretse overcame the British. When the newly-named Botswana gained its independence in 1964, Seretse became its first president. He was knighted by Queen Elixabeth, becoming a member of the Order of the British Empire. Thanks to the discovery of mineral deposits, Botswana prospered, guided through the careful stewardship of Seretse. The problems with graft and promotion of the unqualified that handicapped democracy in other post-colonial countries were avoided by Botswana. For her part, Ruth adapted to Africa and was accepted as the mother of the nation.

Seretse remained president until 1980 when he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Ruth lived on in Botswana until she passed away in 2002, missing by only a few years their son becoming the fourth president of Botswana. While Seretse would have had the right to be angry at his treatment, he remained positive. “I myself,” he said on a 1967 visit to Malawi, “have never been very bitter at all. Bitterness does not pay. Certain things have happened to all of us in the past and it is for us to forget those and look to the future. It is not for our own benefit, but for the benefit of our children and children’s children that we ourselves should put this world right.”

Google It

“Based on a True Story” can be a warning that the filmmakers have taken so many liberties the “true” of the story has been lost. On the other side of the equation, it can instead tell the audience that an unbelievable story actually did happen. Lion is an example of the latter.

In 1986, 5-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives in a village in western India with his mother, older brother, and younger sister. It’s a hard life – Saroo assists his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) in stealing coal off a moving train to barter for milk – but they are a loving, close family. When Guddu heads for a job in a nearby town, Saroo talks his brother into taking him along to work. But when they arrive Saroo is too tired and only wants to sleep. Guddu leaves him on a bench at the town’s train station, with the admonition not to go anywhere.

Saroo awakens to find the station completely deserted. A group of railway passenger cars have been left on a siding, and Saroo enters a car to find a better place to sleep. When he awakens, the cars have been locked and hooked to a train headed to the main railroad yards in Calcutta, 1600 kilometers away. Saroo manages to survive in the city, though not without several close calls, in particular from people who exploit the city’s street children. Through good fortune he’s adopted by an Australian couple and moves to Hobart, Tasmania.

Twenty years later, Saroo (now played by Dev Patel), is still close to his adoptive mother and father, John & Sue Brierley (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman), and has a romance blooming with Lucy (Rooney Mara) whom he met at hotel management school. At a party with others students of Indian descent, a plate of food releases memories of his lost life. He only knew his mother as “mama” – no proper name – and what he remembered as the name of his home village didn’t match anything on the maps. About all he remembers as a landmark are water towers by the train station. One of the party goers suggests using a new computer program to backtrack his route. The program: Google Earth. (Google assisted the production, including providing images from the time frame of the film.)

This is the first feature for Garth Davis, an internationally acclaimed director of commercials. The screenplay by Luke Davies, based on Saroo Brierley’s autobiography, splits the movie into two almost equal pieces between the young Saroo and his later quest to find his family. Davis, assisted by cinematographer Greg Fraser, captures both India and Tasmania in a rich, intimate way. While Davis and Davies hadn’t done much feature film work before Lion, Fraser is one of the preeminent directors of photography in Australia. In the last decade his films include Rogue One, Zero Dark Thirty, Foxcatcher and Let Me In.

This is a more mature performance from Dev Patel, who became a star with Slumdog Millionaire, followed by both Best Exotic Marigold Hotel pictures as well as appearing in HBO’s “The Newsroom.” He gets top billing, though he doesn’t appear until the last half of the film. However, he makes the most of his time and deserves the Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination he’s received, as well as the win in that category at the BAFTA awards. While he’s tended toward gawky characters in previous projects, this could be the beginning of beefcake roles for Patel who shows smoldering good looks and a buff physique.

Nicole Kidman is also nominated (Best Supporting Actress) for her restrained but deeply felt performance. At the end of the film we see real footage of the real Sue Brierley and realize Kidman nailed the embodiment. But the major delight is Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo. The camera reads his emotions like a book. In his first role he holds together the first half of the movie, and hold it he does.

I don’t know if this Sunday night will bring any golden statues for Lion. Along with Patel and Kidman, Davies and Fraser are nominated along with the film’s score, plus a Best Picture nod. The picture, though, has aimed to have an effect long after the lights go up in the theater. In India, 80,000 children go missing each year. It’s the equivalent of losing the population of Indianapolis each year. There are also 11 million children on the streets of India, roughly equivalent to the combined population of New York and Los Angeles. The film’s production companies, See Saw Productions and the Weinstein Company, have launched the LionHeart foundation with the Charity Network to help India’s street children.

I do suggest you bring along a tissue or two when you see Lion.

The Rule On Gold

I’d missed Woman in Gold when it was released in 2015. It disappeared from the theaters in my area so rapidly I missed my chance. The film did make $33 Million in the US. That’s a flop for a Hollywood picture, but the BBC Films production was made on a budget of only $11 Million so it was a financial success. It has now come to Netflix so I finally got the chance to see it.

The theft of art treasures by the Nazis during World War II has been covered before. In 1964 John Frankenheimer directed The Train, starring Burt Lancaster and Paul Scofield, about the French Resistance trying to stop a train headed to Germany loaded with art treasures. More recently there was George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, a fictionalized story based on the special Allied force set up to recover and return art treasures that had been looted. What separates Woman in Gold is that it’s a true story where what happened after the war is as injust as what happened during the Nazi period. It also focuses mainly on one family and one masterpiece, and the fight to return it to the rightful owner.

When her sister dies, octogenarian Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren) discovers paperwork that reveals her sibling tried to recover a painting taken during the war. Since then the canvas was on display in Austria’s national gallery, housed in the Belvedere Palace. The Gustav Klimt painting is correctly titled “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” though it is nicknamed “The Woman In Gold” because of Klimt’s extensive use of gold leaf for the portrait. (The “I” at the end of the title is because Klimt did two portraits of Bloch-Bauer, the only time he ever painted the same model twice.) To Maria, though, the portrait was her Aunt Adele, who was like a second mother to Maria and her sister until Adele’s untimely death from meningitis in 1925. Maria has lived in Southern California ever since she and her husband escaped from Austria shortly before the war. Through another ex-pat, she’s put in contact with attorney Randy Schoenburg (Ryan Reynolds). Randy has his own connection to Austria, as his grandfather was composer Arnold Schoenburg who developed the 12-tone form of composition. Schoenburg had left Europe in 1934 following Hilter’s ascension to power, eventually settling in California and teaching at UCLA. Randy learns Austria has recently formed a reparations panel to deal with looted pieces of art, but the state is loath to let go of the painting, a certified masterpiece that’s viewed as an Austrian treasure.

The movie moves through three periods. There are a few scenes of Maria as a child interacting with Adele, but the main contrast to the modern day story is Maria as a young woman and new bride at the time of Austria’s annexation into the German Reich in 1938. Maria is played at that time by Tatiana Maslany, the star of “Orphan Black.” Adele’s husband, Maria’s uncle, is more clear-eyed about the threat of Hitler than the rest of the Viennese Jewish community and escapes to Zurich. After the Anschluss travel is forbidden for Jews and the laws that would eventually lead to the Holocaust are put in place. The contrast is set with the older Maria having to return to Austria to pursue her claim while the younger Maria must find a way to escape her homeland.

Besides the main characters, the movie has a plethora of fine performers in supporting roles. A key ally for Maria and Randy is Hubertus Czernin, played by Daniel Bruhl. Czernin was an investigative reporter in Vienna who helped expose the Nazi past of Austrian President and former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. Randy’s wife Pam is played by Katie Holmes, and the film also features Charles Dance, Jonathan Pryce, Frances Fisher, and Elizabeth McGovern.

As always, Mirren is a delight to watch on the screen with her deft touch in characterization. She’s like a wine that grows in subtle flavor as it ages. Reynolds holds his own with Mirren. He’s known in particular for comedy, especially after the success of Deadpool, but he can handle the less showy, more complex roles just as well. It took me a while to realize I was watching Maslany, even though I’ve been a fan of Orphan Black since the beginning. She disappears into roles, but you can see the Maria that Mirren portrays clearly in Maslany’s performance.

The film was directed by Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn) from a script by first-time screenwriter Alei Kaye Campbell, who’d mostly worked as an actor before this. Credit’s also given to the real life Maria Altmann and E. Randol (Randy) Schoenburg for their lives as basis for the screenplay, which is unusual but makes perfect sense once you see the movie.

Woman in Gold may not have been more successful since people thought of it as a Holocaust story. Last year’s Denial with Rachel Weisz, which dealt with Holocaust denial, made $4 Million on about the same budget as Gold. But Gold is equal parts legal thriller and escape story, and it is well worth a viewing on Netflix or in any other way available.

A Cut Above Performance

Sometimes it takes a while for the film world to find historical stories that should have been told years ago. Two recent examples came out in 2014, seventy years after the events: The Imitation Game with the story of Alan Turning, who helped create the computer revolution with his work during WWII but who was destroyed because of his homosexuality; and Unbroken, with Louis Zamperini’s experiences at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and as a POW in Japan during WWII. Now another fascinating story from WWII is finally being told in Hacksaw Ridge: the story of a conscientious objector who won the Medal of Honor.

Desmond Doss was a Virginia farm boy who, because of his Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs as well as experiences when he was young, refused to carry a weapon. However, he felt convicted to help in the war effort, and became an Army medic. During the Battle of Okinawa, Doss was credited with saving 75 soldiers who were injured during a battle on top of the eponymous Hacksaw Ridge.

That’s the nuts-and-bolts of the story, but how they’re assembled is important. Director Mel Gibson has done thrilling war stories as a director and actor, such as Braveheart and We Were Soldiers, and the war scenes in Hacksaw Ridge are effective. There’ve also been times when he’s compromised on history, especially in Braveheart where you have the Battle of Stirling Bridge take place without the bridge, which was central to the Scottish strategy. (Having Robert the Bruce consort with William Wallace even though they lived a century apart more properly is the fault of the screenwriter.) In Hacksaw Ridge Gibson, working from a script by Robert Schenkkan (who wrote several episodes of HBO’s The Pacific) and Andrew Knight, exaggerates some parts of the story while underplaying others, including some aspects of Doss’s heroism. For instance, the story presents Doss’s participation on Okinawa as his first experience of war, where he’d actually been in combat on several islands over the course of a couple of years before Okinawa. From here on I’ll focus on the movie itself, but the website History vs. Hollywood has done an excellent breakdown of what the movie gets wrong, as well as what it gets right. Warning: it is, of course, full of spoilers.

Hacksaw Ridge breaks down into three acts. In Act I we’re introduced to Doss (Andrew Garfield), a poor farm boy in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western Virginia. Doss’s father Tom (Hugo Weaving) is a veteran of the First World War, an experience that left him a broken alcoholic with a propensity for violence, often focused on his wife Bertha (Rachel Griffiths). Living with that violence along with his deep faith leads to Doss’s decision not to take up arms. By accident he meets Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), a young nurse at the local hospital, and proceeds to woo her. But the coming of the war interferes with their courtship. Act II covers Doss’s basic training, where his refusal to take up arms leads to constant conflict with his commanding officer Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) and his trainer Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn). Act III covers the fight on Okinawa, which was one of the most violent of the war because the island was considered Japanese soil. The Japanese suffered over a hundred thousand casualties, including boys as young as fourteen who were used as suicide bombers against tanks. It’s believe the experience during the 84 day campaign, which cost nearly 20,000 US lives, was a major factor in Truman’s decision to use the A-Bomb to end the war.

What elevates the movie from simply an effective war story to a deeply powerful and thrilling experience is the performance of Garfield as Doss. His recent outings as Spider-Man were not high quality acting experiences, but with Doss Garfield fulfills the promise that was seen in his first major role as Eduardo Saverin in The Social Network. Garfield makes Doss’s convictions not only understandable but completely believable. The convictions cost him dearly, as shown in the film, but he has the audience rooting for Doss to make it.

Weaving, Palmer, and Worthington all turn in sterling performances. Vince Vaughn, though, rises to the top with the best dramatic performance of his career. His Howell is the sharpening stone to Garfield’s steel, and the sparks that fly between them grab your attention and won’t let it go. It’s also through Vaughn that you first see the grudging respect and eventually full-fledge honor for Doss by his comrades.

While Okinawa is only a third of the film, Gibson pulls out the stops in the portrayal of the violence. It is not for the fainthearted, and some scenes, while accurate for the war, are extremely disturbing. Still, that makes the contrast to Doss’s position stronger. What brings home the reality even more, though, is the end of the movie that features clips of the real Doss talking about his experience on Hacksaw Ridge shortly before his death in 2006. Garfield’s performance squares perfectly with the real man, and that is an accomplishment.

In Truth

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” It is perhaps fitting that this quote, attributed to both Mark Twain and Winston Churchill, actually comes from the preacher C.H. Spurgeon in the 1850s, while a different version was written by Jonathan Swift in 1710. If anything, the Internet has supercharged this statement. These days whole sites are dedicated to trumpeting conspiracy theories.  The truth requires thought and effort, while falsehoods only need a loud voice and no shame. And perhaps one more thing is needed – an audience who finds the falsehoods easier to live with than the truth. Denial is a powerful temptation: no, 20 kids and their teachers didn’t die at Sandy Hook, it was actors creating and excuse to wipe out the 2nd Amendment. We didn’t go to the moon, it was just special effects. And on, and on, and on.

The apex event for deniers is the Holocaust. There are multiple books, articles, websites, etc., that push the position that it didn’t happen. Instead, it was a conspiracy by the Jews to get their own homeland in Palestine, or a few people died in the camps but there was no systematic extermination, or Hitler knew nothing of what was happening and has been completely misunderstood. Many rationals, but one outcome. In the 1990s, a major voice of the deniers, British historian David Irving, filed suit against an American history professor, Deborah Lipstadt, for defamation of character in her book about Holocaust deniers. Rather than bring the suit in US where he’d have to prove libel, Irving sued in England, where the burden of proof is on the defendant. Lipstadt was put into the position of proving the Holocaust actually happened.

Now that event has come to theaters. Denial tells the story of the trial, beginning with how Irving (Timothy Spall) targets Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) for his suit. Lipstadt then must navigate the arcane terrain of British jurisprudence, including dealing with both a solicitor, Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), and a barrister, Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson).

The story was adapted by David Hare (Damages, The Hours, The Reader) and directed by Mick Jackson. Jackson has worked mostly in television, where he won an Emmy for his direction of “Temple Grandin.” It’s been a decade and a half since he directed a feature, though in the 1990s he did L.A. Story, The Bodyguard with Whitney Houston, and a personal cheesetastic favorite of mine, 1997’s Volcano (with one of the best tag lines ever: “The Coast is Toast.”) Jackson and Hare illuminate the legal case beautifully – in the trial scenes, only the transcript of the actual testimony is used for dialogue – and they also delineate the denier mindset to make it understandable for the audience.

Weisz is excellent as Lipstadt, nailing the professor’s Queens accent along with the emotional truth of the situation. Wilkinson makes a brilliant legal mind accessible while Spall manages to humanize Irving even as he also shows his deplorable and pathetic nature. Scott is known to most these days for his portrayal of Moriarty on “Sherlock,” though as Julius he imbues the role with a steely intellectual control. There is another connection to “Sherlock” as the series co-creator and writer, Mark Gatiss, who also plays Mycroft Holmes, appears here as a historical expert on Auschwitz.

The emotional heart of the movie comes when Lipstadt and Rampton travel to Auschwitz in preparation for the trial. Seeing the scope of the camp, with a perimeter that ran for miles, along with what’s left of the gas chambers – they were dynamited by the Nazis before the camp fell to the Russians to hide the genocide – is powerful.

If anything, the problem of denial has grown greater in the years since the trial. Religion has always had trouble with Gnosticism – those who feel they have “special knowledge” to which regular people have no access. These days there’s a secular Gnosticism that shares the claim of special knowledge, even though it indulges in circular logic, and in many cases flights of intellectual fancy. I’ll end with another quote, this time from Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.” As Denial makes clear, it’s imperative that people such as Irving are denied any validity, for their intellectual hubris removes honor from those who have suffered and died, in truth.

Diving In Deep

The Deepwater Horizon blowout that dumped thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico each day for months was the worst environmental disaster in US history. Its long-term effects continue to be felt in the Gulf States. Most news focused solely on the oil spill while BP tried to cap its well along with the recovery efforts of Gulf State residents. Lost in that story, though, was the struggle to survive fought by the 100-plus people on the platform in the aftermath of the explosion. Now Mark Walberg and Peter Berg, who collaborated three years ago on Lone Survivor, bring the story of that fight to the screen in Deepwater Horizon.

Along with being a decent actor, Walberg has become an effective producer, both for his own films such as The Fighter and Lone Survivor, and shows where he stays behind the scenes like the HBO series “Entourage,” “In Treatment” and “Boardwalk Empire” as well as films like Prisoners. Berg started as an actor as well but has grown into the ultimate movie hyphenate as actor-director-producer-screenwriter (he produced the last movie I reviewed, Hell or High Water). For Deepwater Horizon Berg directed and did the small role of Mr. Skip, and Walberg executive produced along with starred.

The movie focuses on Mike Williams (Walberg), the chief electronics technician on the rig, beginning on the day he travels out to the platform to begin a multi-week tour of duty. Over breakfast, his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and he watch their daughter practice her school presentation on what her father does, using a can of soda, a sharp tube, and a honey bear to explain the drilling process, thereby giving a simple but effective primer for the audience as well. Also introduced are Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez of “Jane the Virgin”), who is in charge of controlling the rig’s placement, and Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), the supervisor of the platform for its owners, Transocean.

The “Deepwater” in its title was descriptive, since it was a semi-submersible platform. Berg does an excellent job of explaining its operation. It wasn’t a standard platform on stilts embedded in sea bed but was actually a ship that was kept in position over the drill site through a dynamic system of propellers. In effect the Deepwater Horizon was constantly sailing in one spot 40 miles out in the Gulf. This allowed it to function in water much too deep for the standard platforms. Supplies were delivered by boat while the crew arrived and departed via helicopter.

Once we follow the characters to the platform, the seeds that grew into the disaster are on display. There’s a split in control between the operator of the platform and BP, the oil company that leased it to drill the well. (Though not highlighted, another company involved was Halliburton, which made the blowout protector placed on the ocean floor.) The well is weeks behind schedule, and Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) the main representative for BP, is pushing to get it completed. That includes bypassing expensive concrete work to secure the well. The Deepwater Horizon itself had multiple system failures that Mike Williams runs through when asked by a BP representative. As is usually the case, it’s not just one item that fails but instead a multitude of missteps that lead to the blowout.

The movie production was originally announced by main producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura in March 2011, less than a year after the disaster. The story was based on a New York Times article about what happened on the platform that fateful night. As usually happens, the movie went through several years of development hell with different directors attached to the project. Berg and Walberg came on board in early 2015, following their success with Lone Survivor, and it jumpstarted the production so they began filming within a few months. The Times article was adapted by Matthew Sand while the actual script was written by Sand and Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z, The Kingdom).

The special effects and visual effects crews who worked on the movie deserve kudos for recreating the Deepwater Horizon’s destruction in a fiery, explosive maelstrom. But kudos are also deserved by the art department and set decorators who make you feel like you’re actually on the platform.

Deepwater Horizon is a thrilling piece of movie making, and it also manages to clarify the events of that April night in 2010. The cast perform their roles with restraint, and in doing so honor the real people who survived the tragedy – and those who did not. Real heroism doesn’t brag; heroes are people who do what they need to do because others are depending upon them, all the while knowing it could lead to the ultimate sacrifice.

Walberg and Berg will be back early in 2017 with their next collaboration. As with the previous two, it’s a true-life story, this time about the Boston Marathon bombings. I’m looking forward to Patriot’s Day.