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The Deepwater Horizon oil well disaster, which killed 11 people and caused the largest accidental marine oil spill in the world is already, on its own, a tremendously compelling story and deservedly received a lot of media attention back in 2010 when it occurred. BP made cuts that cost lives and caused one of the worst manmade environmental disasters in history. Telling that story while being respectful of those who perished and reigniting vitriol for the company that caused it is no easy task and Deepwater Horizon mostly accomplishes this though not to the degree it might have.
Deepwater Horizon begins with what may be the least subtle bit of contrived exposition in film history with Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), a chief driller about to head to the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform, in the kitchen with his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and young daughter Sydney (Stella Allen). Sydney is practicing for her show & tell at school and demonstrates the process of tapping for oil while explaining in great detail how it’s done and why her daddy is a hero for bringing dinosaurs back to the surface. It even concludes with her soda pop bottle drill model exploding.
From there, we follow Mike as he joins the rest of the main crew, including boss Jim Harrell (Kurt Russell) as they take a helicopter flight to the Deepwater Horizon platform. There they meet a few BP executives, with a man named Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) serving as their leader. Harrell and his crew are up in arms about the myriad unstable and broken parts on the rig, accusing BP of cutting corners and conducting dangerous tests with the equipment. For nearly forty minutes, one after the other, we learn how the operation is a disaster waiting to happen and every one of the drillers feel it. Naturally, they are right and it’s not long before hell visits upon them and a cacophony of oil, water, fire and death reigns over them.
Directed by Peter Berg, Deepwater Horizon is undoubtedly a thrilling experience. The raw power and velocity of the explosion and the terrifying aftermath of trying to escape and survive are masterfully done. It feels authentic and is the film’s strongest moments, capturing what surely must have been a nightmare for these people. That said, the film is essentially an action picture and because of this, we don’t have much connection to these characters who are all mostly men in red jumpsuits in a blur of smoke, water, and fire. As the rig becomes engulfed in cataclysmic fury, the film succeeds in delivering a harrowing tale of heroism and human spirit, with a few good performances that make it truly gripping, yet there is a disconnect to them that leaves much of the efforts more about the visual effects than the people fighting it.
When considering what happened, it’s remarkable that a single person made it off the rig, let alone the 115 that did. The film’s main character, Mike, is the cornerstone of the story and Wahlberg, who is no stranger to movies about disasters at sea, is the weakest link. Not so much his performance, which ranges from distractingly Wahlberg-ishness to a few shining moments on the rig, but rather the arc of the character itself, which checks off a whole list of tropes in the genre and keeps him more perfuctory than honest. That of course leave Hudson’s character left to be the clichéd doting panicked wife on the phone for her part in the film. Russell is very well cast and brings some gravitas to the small role, but he too, especially in the first half is relegated to speaking his dismay over the lack of oversight on the rig. It gets so that nearly every line any character who is not wearing a BP emblem on their shirt speaks is a shot at how the job and the rig are destined for failure.
That’s not to say that some of that might not be right (it should be noted that some of actual surviving crew of the real Deepwater Horizon are crowdfunding a documentary project to help displace a lot of the media’s misrepresentation of select people and events). There was a tremendous amount of courage on that rig and Berg documents that well, though he can’t resist some flourishes that seem manipulative. That the whole thing ends in a slo-motion montage with decidedly grass-roots Americana music and a few shots of the flag don’t help. Still, Deepwater Horizon is an engrossing film and if anything, reminds us that it is a subject we mustn’t forget.
Director: Peter Berg
Writers: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Matthew Sand
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Douglas M. Griffin, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez
Genre: Biographical Drama