The explosion and subsequent oil spill on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the Louisiana Coast in 2010 remains one of the worst ecological disasters in the history of the world. For over 80 days, crude oil gushed outward from the ocean floor, three and a half miles under the ocean surface. The start of the disaster is inspiration for Deepwater Horizon, the new film from director Peter Berg, which is a sharp piece of disaster filmmaking, capturing strong themes of loyalty and heroism amidst a thrilling cinematic spectacle.
43 days behind schedule, the crew of the Deepwater Horizon leave their homes to return to the massive rig in the sea to place the finishing touches on a unit that will line the coffers BP (British Petroleum) even more than before. Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) leaves behind his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) for three weeks as he joins the crew of 126 men and women on the Deepwater rig. When Mike arrives with Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), the supervisor of safety on the rig, they’re shocked to find this technological marvel in disarray. The phones don’t work amongst other issues, but more troubling is the fact that it appears that the executives of BP are cutting corners in order to get the facility to pump oil as soon as possible. The first issue noticeable to Jimmy and his crew is the fact that a test required to test the concrete that he been installed underwater has just been glossed over under orders from Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), and the other shortcuts ordered soon pile up. When another test to analyze the pressure in the pipes shows errors, Vidrine and his cohorts devise alternate explanations and proceed to move forward. Of course, as we all know by now, they were wrong, and the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, sunk, killing 11 members of its crew, and sparking an ecological crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.
Everyone in the audience knows what’s coming, and Berg doesn’t bother to try and hide it. From the early scenes on, Berg is constantly teasing the impending disaster, whether showing Mike’s daughter giving a preview of a school presentation of her father’s work which ends with a Coke can exploding or the multiple underwater shots highlighting the cracks in the untested concrete. For all the foreshadowing, Berg and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand aren’t in a rush to make this a non-stop spectacle of a disaster movie. There’s a patience on display in establishing the characters that populate the rig, the corporate politics that dictate that corners are cut, as well as the natural and technological barriers that complicate the installation of the rig.
When the shit hits the fan, that’s Peter Berg steps up his game and crafts a lengthy final act that is thrilling, harrowing, and surprisingly emotionally investing. The explosion reverberates throughout the oil rig, and the crew is forced to scramble through a haze of blood and oil. All of those relationships that are built over the course of the first half of the film pay off as the bonds between everyone are tested in a grave moment of life and death. It’s not always easy to tell which characters are killed and maimed in the chaos of the situation, and that’s to Berg’s credit in recreating the perspective of the characters who have no idea which of their friends have been seriously wounded or killed. There are even moments where Berg calms the tension down just a little so we can squirm as men are forced to deal with gruesome injuries in order to make their escape. All in all, the big sequence at the end of Deepwater Horizon are worth the price of admission alone.
Most of the characters in Deepwater Horizon wouldn’t be out of place in Howard Hawks western, each of them, with the notable exception of all BP executives, are driven by a sense of professionalism and loyalty. Wahlberg gives his best performance in a very long time, embodying an everyman quality that he hasn’t shown in a few years. Grounding the film is the strong performance of Kurt Russell, a man that is forthright with his moral and professional code. Even when injured, Russell’s Jimmy Harrell places his duty above his safety, and Russell sells every inch of the character, from a gruff exterior to his internal thinking. Gina Rodriguez, Ethan Suplee, and Dylan O’Brien are just a few of the supporting actors that are able to standout throughout the chaos. Employing a deep Southern fried accent, John Malkovich is chilling as BP executive that prioritizes profits over safety. If Malkovich’s character had a mustache, he’d revel in twirling it. Underutilized, in what should be called the “Clint Eastwood wife” role, is Kate Hudson, who isn’t asked to do much else except cry on the telephone.
For all the special effects and spectacle that drive the finale of Deepwater Horizon, Peter Berg retains a real somber tone throughout. Before the credits role, Berg pays tribute to the 11 men killed that April day in 2010 before transitioning the title cards to the environmental aftermath. And then just get your blood boiling with anger, a title card informs us that two of the BP executives were charged with manslaughter for their role in the negligence only to have those charges dismissed in 2015. For all their hubris in placing the bottom line of human and environmental safety, these men only face the most minor of consequences. There’s simply no justice to be found with a crime this massive.
I was sincere in my skepticism that Deepwater Horizon would make a good movie, but my skepticism was dissuaded by the sheer skill on display in crafting an emotionally resonant, visually thrilling film. Deepwater Horizon is strong mixture of brains and brawn, willing to slow down for moments that define the characters and then ramping up the action to maximum tension. There’s no silver lining to the events of the Deepwater Horizon spill, and making a good movie out of the events doesn’t mitigate the ecological or human impacts. At the very least, Peter Berg was able to craft a movie with emotional honesty that respects the lives lost that day, as well as the lasting environmental damage. That’s really all anyone can ask for as far as a cinematic depiction of this horrific disaster.