Movie Review: “Deepwater Horizon”

Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Gina Rodriguez, John Malkovich, Kate Hudson, Dylan O’Brien, Ethan Suplee
Peter Berg

Everyone remembers the images of the BP oil spill that dominated the TV news cycle back in 2010 – the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig engulfed in flames, the rivers of black crude oil spreading across the Gulf of Mexico – but not many people know the details of what actually happened. It remains the worst oil disaster in U.S. history, and director Peter Berg recreates it in stunningly authentic detail for his latest film. But while “Deepwater Horizon” is a pretty effective disaster movie with some decent thrills and enough explosions to make even Michael Bay jealous, it doesn’t seem to have a purpose. It works just fine as a dramatic reenactment of corporate greed gone horribly wrong, but unlike the real-life incident, it will quickly be forgotten.

There were a lot of heroes aboard the Deepwater Horizon on that fateful day, but Berg centers on a quartet of Transocean contractors – including chief electronics technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), crew chief Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), bridge officer Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) and floorhand Caleb Holloway (Dylan O’Brien) – to tell the harrowing tale. When Mike, Jimmy and Andrea arrive on the offshore drilling rig for a three-week shift, they discover that an important safety procedure has been ignored due to the project falling behind schedule. Adamant about the safety of his crew, Jimmy insists that they run some additional tests before anyone begins drilling, much to the annoyance of BP executive Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich). After the tests prove inconclusive, Vidrine pressures the workers into starting the job anyway, leading to the tragic accident that claimed the lives of 11 men and caused irreparable damage to the surrounding waters.

If there’s one thing that Berg clearly prides himself on, it’s the remarkable attention to detail in his films, and “Deepwater Horizon” is no different. The audience is dropped into the middle of a foreign environment and forced to keep up as the characters rattle off technical jargon that you don’t understand but sounds important. (It reminded me so much of J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call” in the way that it partially alienates the viewer that it’s not surprising to learn he was originally attached to direct the movie.) Though it comes off as a bit dry at times, at least it feels legit, lending an authenticity to the proceedings that goes a long way in immersing you in the story. The action sequences are just as realistic; Berg doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the situation, and it makes for some intense viewing. However, while the set pieces are certainly impressive (especially the initial pipe burst that sends a giant tremor through the rig), they’re often difficult to see amid all the fire, mud, oil and flying debris.

They also lack any real emotional connection to the characters. Though “Deepwater Horizon” features a talented cast, they’re not given a whole lot to do. The early scenes between Mike and his wife (Kate Hudson) are the closest the film comes to actual character development, while Malkovich’s slow-drawling executive is presented as such a thinly-sketched villain that the only thing he’s missing is a mustache to twirl. That’s not to say that the real-life BP representatives weren’t pond scum, because anyone who places a company’s bottom line above human life is deserving of much worse treatment, but it’s poured on a little too thick. In spite of these problems, the cast keeps the movie afloat. Wahlberg turns in a solid performance as the courageous everyman, Russell continues his comeback tour with grizzled charm, and Hudson brings grace to a thankless role.

“Deepwater Horizon” is ultimately a tale of two films – the first half foreshadows the tragedy as the affable crew members butt heads with the corporate higher-ups over the potential warning signs, while the second half focuses on their fight for survival once the proverbial shit hits the fan. Although framing the incident as a disaster movie is an interesting approach, there’s so much to be said about the aftermath of the spill that it feels like Berg missed an opportunity to examine the larger narrative beyond the brief mention of the clean-up effort and ensuing lawsuits that’s tacked on at the end of the film. As a pure spectacle, “Deepwater Horizon” delivers the necessary thrills, but it falls short of honoring its survivors and victims in the way that Berg probably intended.