Boogie Nights Deepwater Horizon

DEEPWATER HORIZON and Mark Wahlberg’s Dignified Simplicity

Wednesday, October 05, 2016 Rob Samuelson

“Everyone’s given one special thing, right?”

Photo credit: Boogie Nights/Facebook


That line arrives early in Boogie Nights, the 1997 satirical drama about a porn star’s rise and fall through the 1970s and ‘80s. The words tumble out of the mouth of Eddie Adams, played by Mark Wahlberg in his breakout onscreen performance. Soon, Eddie will be no more. He will become Dirk Diggler, the extraordinarily-endowed wunderkind of the pornography world -- and a world-class dummy most of the time.

It’s okay that Dirk is not particularly bright. He can do one thing better than anyone on the planet. So what if that thing is having an especially telegenic piece of the male anatomy -- and impeccable control over it. It’s only when he moves away from that one thing -- to practice “kah-rah-tay,” or to record a rather horrendous cover of Stan Bush’s “You’ve Got the Touch” from the Transformers: The Movie soundtrack, or to get into the business of ripping off Rick Springfield-singing drug lords -- when he gets in trouble. It takes years of pain, addiction, and failure at everything else, but eventually Dirk recognizes that his gift, taboo as it is, is all that he has in this life.

It is a realization that so many Mark Wahlberg characters have had throughout the former musician’s (“I wanna see sweat comin’ out your pores”) career on the big screen. Wahlberg specializes in playing the kind of man who knows in his bones that he is not the smartest person in the room -- and having a chip on his shoulder because of it. The Wahlberg man always occupies a space between “perpetual screwup” and “top of his game.” The key to this man’s success is whether he allows himself to be satisfied with only having one thing to offer to the world. He must embrace his simplicity, for within that lies dignity.

Wahlberg’s newest role, that of real-life oil worker Mike Williams in director Peter Berg’s climate disaster/recent history biographical film Deepwater Horizon, is the Platonic ideal of the Wahlberg man described above, a calm and assured person who nonetheless has a bone to pick with people who have more perceived mental pedigree than he does. He knows who he is and he works himself raw to prove himself capable of any mechanical situation on the rickety BP-owned oil tanker in the Gulf of Mexico.

Photo credit: Deepwater Horizon/Facebook

In one scene early in the film Mike attends a meeting with his boss, who he calls Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell), and a group of BP executives aboard the floating oil extraction vehicle. The executives, led by John Malkovich as a man named Don Vidrine, are slick, corner-cutting snake oil salesmen. They talk circles around each other and the expert crew members about the need (or lack thereof) for a series of industry-standard safety checks of a volatile piece of Gulf oil real estate. Considering that the Gulf region is still recovering from the ecological disaster of their carelessness and greed, you can guess who wins the argument. Mr. Jimmy seethes both physically and verbally, but Mike stands in the corner, silent while the “adults” talk. When the conversation turns to the repairs the Deepwater Horizon facility requires (the executives scoff at the notion that maintenance is something that is ever needed when there’s money to be made), Mike sees his chance. He speaks up when Vidrine gestures in his direction.

“Where to begin?” he says with a slight Southern twang added to Wahlberg’s high-register Northeastern accent. He looks tentative, like he has not gotten his conversational sea legs. The executives trade eye rolls as if to say, “Who’s this bozo?” Mike is no dummy, so he picks up on this palpable derision. He doesn’t care for it. It lights a fire beneath him and he rattles off at least a dozen pieces of equipment and systems that need immediate attention. He knows the Deepwater Horizon like he knows his own 10-year-old daughter, perhaps even better, because he has spent his adult life in a tunnel-vision pursuit of honing his one skill -- mechanics. He may not have the smarts or instincts to succeed financially in the world of finance like the sniveling businessmen in front of him (Peter Berg is not a subtle filmmaker, but he’s served well by having a cast of real-life cartoonish villains to tear apart cinematically), but that also means he cannot bring himself to compromise in the matter of his obligations to the safety of his crewmates or himself. It is class warfare made into personal drama, with the lower-class man showing up his more well-to-do adversaries through preparation and experience while they peddle assumptions and haughty disregard.

Wahlberg the performer is unsurprisingly made of the same cloth as Mike. He is not an actor who often changes his posture or vocal inflections or gestures from role to role. He does not have a character actor’s ability to inhabit any fictional person and make that person seem real. He’s more of a meat-and-potatoes figure in Hollywood, working within a limited spectrum of emotions, consistently injecting blue-collar charm and honor into his characters. He makes due with what he has.

It’s there when his character, Bobby Shatford, floats in the swirling coastal waters at the end of The Perfect Storm. He and his crew members did their jobs to the best of their ability and looked out for each other, sacrificed for each other, but circumstances out of their control conspired to hurt them. It’s there when Micky Ward in The Fighter understands that he can rely only on himself -- not his crack-addled brother (Christian Bale) or his constantly bickering mother (Melissa Leo) and sisters -- to perfect his unfancy, straightforward boxing style in order to compete (and win) at the highest level. It’s there when he is leading a European heist for revenge in The Italian Job, when he and his dunderheaded partner (Will Ferrell) have to pick up the police department slack after their hotshot colleagues bite the dust in The Other Guys, and most of all when his cantankerous, foul-mouthed detective in The Departed cuts through the sneakier characters’ crap to get the best of them all in the end. It is simple. It is direct. It’s noble.

It ain’t much, but it’s what he’s got.

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