(PG-13; 99 minutes; Lionsgate): The explosion of the enormous floating rig Deepwater Horizon and the ensuing oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico is well known as the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. A buried truth within that statistic is that 11 workers lost their lives in April 2010, when pressure built up in a pipeline submerged a mile underwater, resulting in a massive blowout and fire.
“Deepwater Horizon” revisits that tragedy, reconstituting it as both a rousing action movie and a somber memorial to the dead. Directed by Peter Berg and starring Mark Wahlberg, this harrowing, gripping film is an homage to strength and get-on-with-it competence, a stirring portrait of brawn and know-how that are continually undermined by the preening ambitions of clueless elites.
In “Deepwater Horizon,” those arrogant know-nothings are the British Petroleum managers who are portrayed as rushing to exploit the potentially unstable Macondo Prospect, despite being known as “the well from hell” to the Horizon crew. John Malkovich plays BP engineer Donald Vidrine as part company man, part Cajun swamp fox, eager to get the already delayed operation underway despite warnings from Horizon crew chief Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) and electronics expert Mike Williams (Wahlberg). That setup might be simplistic – news reports suggested that Transocean, the company that operated the rig, routinely bypassed the safety systems and maintenance inspections – but it suits a movie that is less interested in slicing and dicing corporate accountability than in humanizing a story that has either been forgotten or was never fully understood in the first place.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Our guide through that tale is Williams, a U.S. Marine who seems singularly suited to the role of movie hero.
Settling comfortably into his role as our cinematic elder statesman of blue-collar integrity, Wahlberg proves a sturdy, sympathetic leader on a journey to an enormous floating hellscape.
Contains prolonged intense disaster sequences and related disturbing images, and brief strong language.
‘Birth of a Nation’
(R; 119 minutes; Fox Searchlight): Nate Parker’s historical drama “The Birth of a Nation,” which focuses on a violent 1831 slave rebellion on a Virginia plantation, is a powerful film. It is, particularly in its quieter moments, often a deeply moving one. And it tells, unquestionably, an important story that needs to be heard.
It is also – and let’s just address the elephant in the room – a difficult film to review on its own merits, thanks to this summer’s revelations of a rape accusation in Parker’s past. The plot of “Birth of a Nation” contains two pivotal rapes – both of which take place off-camera (a curious choice for a film that shows us an unusually brutal level of violence elsewhere), but whose aftermath is harrowingly played by Aja Naomi King and a haunting, mute Gabrielle Union.
But it’s part of the strength of Parker’s film that the current controversy doesn’t entirely overshadow its impact – and that “Birth of a Nation” immediately becomes part of another crucial conversation, about race. Parker plays Nat Turner, a man born into the life of horrific abuse and fear that was slavery. As an adult, he became a preacher, used by his owner (Armie Hammer) to speak calming words to unruly slaves. It’s a fascinating performance.
Parker, directing his first feature, doesn’t always trust his material to carry the drama, relying too much on a melodramatic score. But this story, framed by eerily endless cotton fields, didn’t need the embellishment.
Contains disturbing violent content, and some brief nudity.
‘Kevin Hart: What Now?’
(R; 96 minutes; Universal): Comedy juggernaut Kevin Hart isn’t content to merely share the screen in buddy comedies like “Ride Along” and “Central Intelligence.” He wants to own the screen, as he does in his latest stand up comedy film, “Kevin Hart: What Now?”
For his latest trick, he sold out Lincoln Financial Field in his hometown of Philadelphia, a record-breaking, history-making crowd.
Despite his diminutive stature – of which he will often remind you – Hart commands the packed football stadium with his manic energy and Gatling-gun delivery. He’s aided by a sophisticated stage production including lifts, lighting and screens that set the scene for his jokes and anecdotes.
Hart has matured and that shows in the material. His jokes are about his family, kids, fiancee and his new life as a movie star, and he doesn’t attempt to project anything other than what he is and what kind of life he leads.
But the humor, as it always has, revolves around Hart’s slightly bratty self-preservation instincts – he digs deep into vulnerabilities and what could be perceived as his flaws as a parent and partner to draw out the laughs. His unabashed embrace of that provides the base of his cultural commentary, particularly around gender.
Contains some sexual material, and language throughout.
Tribune News Service
Also out Jan. 10
- “Max Steel”
- “Broad City: Season 3”
- “Homeland: Season 5”
- “Mr. Robot: Season 2”