Most of us are familiar with the story of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the largest accidental spill in history. For several months after mid-April 2010 it was impossible to avoid headlines about the impending environmental disaster caused by the billions of barrels worth of oil heading across the Gulf of Mexico towards the U.S. coastline.
That is not the story told by Peter Berg’s film though. Instead Berg focuses on the events leading up to the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that caused the oil spill, as well as the fight for survival of the workers caught in the inferno, 11 of whom died.
The focus is therefore on blue collar electrical technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) who leaves his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and young daughter at home to fly out to work on the rig. Before he goes he helps his daughter with a school project, piercing a can to show the mechanics of how the Deepwater Horizon extracts oil from beneath the seabed. Meanwhile, Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), one of the few females aboard the rig, embarks on a similar journey, leaving her lover behind for a long stint at sea.
What the early part of the film captures well is the culture of those working offshore. Those aboard the Deepwater Horizon are hard bitten and no nonsense in their attitudes, but suffer from being away from their loved ones and from long periods of boredom, building a cynical camaraderie.
The embodiment of this culture is Kurt Russell as ‘Mister’ Jimmy Harrell, the man in charge of safety on the Deepwater Horizon, who is deeply protective of his crew but has little time for the executives from oil company BP visiting the rig in an attempt to speed along a drilling process that is already running over time and over budget.
Punctuated by foreboding shots of the seafloor indicating what horrors may lie beneath, the movie’s opening act also does a good job of explaining the mechanics of the drilling and decision making process that would later prove fatal.
The critical figure in this part is John Malkovich’s BP executive Don Vidrine, with Malkovich gnawing his way through scenes like a rodent in company attire while pushing Jimmy and his team to speed up safety checks and exploratory drilling in a bid to get the rig pumping oil.
The film’s script isn’t subtle on where it places the blame for the disaster, with Vidrine cast as a genuine villain who places corporate greed ahead of Mike and Jimmy’s insistence on protocol and on extra safety tests when initial pressure checks prove inconclusive.
Inevitably, the push to get drilling results in disaster, with mud, oil, and then flames flying through the rig and putting the lives of all those aboard in peril. Here the film turns very much into the traditional disaster movie, ‘Bloke-tanic’ if you will, as those on the drilling vessel fight to survive an inferno they can barely believe is taking place.
Even in his inferior work, such as his calamitous 2012 film Battleship, Berg has shown he can do action and explosions with aplomb, and Deepwater Horizon is visually visceral. What makes this perhaps his best movie since his 2004 sports drama Friday Night Lights however is that we truly care about the characters and their futile attempts to put an end the ongoing calamity.
Wahlberg is always at his best playing blue collar characters and as Mike, the man left orchestrating efforts to escape the rig as it is engulfed by fire, is uncomplicated but utterly convincing. Russell meanwhile delivers an affecting turn in gruff desperation as Jimmy.
After the action begins, things can feel a little bit one note, and despite the opening act carefully showing the process of oil extraction, this is not a particularly subtle or cerebral take on a relatively recent news event.
However, Deepwater Horizon is perhaps all the better for it. Its simple message, that a group of heroes who we rely on to keep our lights on and our cars running were let down by the greed of those of the top is hammered home. The lack of frills, focus on action and uncomplicated depiction of their heroism mean that this is done in a way that feels appropriate to the lives of those it is eulogising.
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