“Harrowing” is the best word for Deepwater Horizon. It’s the fact-based story about 126 men and women on 52,590 tons of steel and concrete 40 miles off the Louisiana coast during a worst case scenario. “Worst case scenario” in this context involves a string of catastrophic failures and mistakes leading to a massive oil-rig blowout, torrents of oil, devastating explosions and flying shrapnel, and a massive tower of flames hundreds of feet high visible from the coast.
It happened on April 20, 2010, and it was the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Eleven crew members were lost, more than100 million gallons of oil flowed into the Gulf of Mexico, and the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig burned for over a day before sinking to the ocean floor.
An action-thriller based on so recent a disaster could easily come off as exploitative. (What Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich would make of this material, I shudder to think.) Alternatively, a quasi-documentary approach, like Paul Greengrass’s United 93, would be more respectful, but might limit the film’s appeal.
Somehow, Deepwater Horizon manages to have its cake and eat it too, or at least to split the difference.
On the one hand, Peter Berg (The Kingdom, Lone Survivor) is clearly making a Hollywood film, with movie stars — Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Kate Hudson — as well as standard screenwriting tropes, obvious exposition and foreshadowing.
There’s a smart, tough, self-effacing hero, Wahlberg’s chief electronics technician Mike Williams, with a gorgeous wife Felicia (Hudson) and adorable daughter Sydney (Stella Allen) at home, so his survival is really important. There’s a hissable villain, Malkovich’s BP rig supervisor Donald Vidrine, who, whatever ambiguous readings Deepwater Horizon’s pressure gauges are showing, is clearly generating unsafe levels of pressure to get drilling back on schedule, even if that means cutting corners.
There’s also a breezy Latina, Gina Rodriguez’s Andrea Fleytas, who recognizes what needs to be done when everything goes sideways, and a nervous bureaucrat, Brad Leland’s Robert Kaluza, who tells her she doesn’t have the authority to do it. Presiding over all this is Russell’s “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell, the beloved, respected offshore installation manager, who knows Vidrine is pushing too hard, and tries hard to protect his crew, though in the end it isn’t enough.
On the other hand, the film sketches in these characters just enough to hold the story together. What really interests Berg is exploring how the disaster happened, what it was like, and how those 126 people responded, for better and for worse. This isn’t trumped-up character melodrama; these are bare types — salt-of-the-earth workers and family men or callow bottom-line bureaucrats — in the story of an event.
As James Cameron did in Titanic, Deepwater Horizon makes some effort to give us a simplified technical précis ahead of time of the disaster we’re about to see — although the explanation here, preciously illustrated with a can of Coke, a straw, and some honey, offers only the haziest of context.
Pretty soon, though, Deepwater Horizon becomes a much geekier film than Titanic, surrendering to a battery of complications and stratagems that casual viewers often won’t be able to follow. That doesn’t matter so much, though, as long as we’re convinced that the characters know what’s going on. Plus, of course, there’s no Jack and Rose nonsense here.
Like Sully a few weeks ago, Deepwater Horizon celebrates matter-of-fact competence and unassuming heroism in the face of unexpected disaster. (There is even a bird strike on an aircraft early on, though it’s trivial in this case, except as foreshadowing.) At a time when our cinematic costumed crimefighters have become conflicted, narcissistic antiheroes, real heroes are found in fact-based dramas like these. (And, in a different way, like Queen of Katwe.)
Banter, irony and earthy frankness are hallmarks of this world, tokens of authenticity and honesty. I would call them marks of the roughneck culture of the drilling crew members, but they exist between Mike and his wife Felicia, too.
In the opening scene, on the morning of Mike’s departure for a three-week absence, there is some teasing about the hardships of not sharing a bed for 21 days. Then at breakfast young Sydney announces that she refrained from knocking on the bedroom door because she really wants a brother. “That’s disturbing,” Felicia remarks with tolerant amusement, adding that Sydney is meant to think that babies are delivered by storks. This is the happy home life threatened by BP’s greedy corner-cutting.
I would have been disappointed, but not surprised, if so old-fashioned a film hadn’t ended with something like the scene where surviving crew members kneel to pray the entire Lord’s Prayer in unison (cutting ecumenically away after “and deliver us from evil,” where Protestants keep going and Catholics don’t). Did the devoutly Catholic Wahlberg have anything to do with the inclusion of this scene, as David Oyelowo did in Queen of Katwe when he improvised a scene praying with the kids he coached?
Closing titles tell us that Vidrine was sentenced to probation and Kaluza was acquitted. A better film, I think, would have been more up in arms about the institutional failures that allowed the Deepwater Horizon disaster to happen and then failed to hold anyone accountable. That doesn’t make Deepwater Horizon an unsatisfying film. It does what it does, and what it does is worth doing.
Caveat Spectator: Much intense disaster imagery, including gory injuries; brief marital sensuality and some innuendo; some profanity and crude language. Older teens and up.