Director: Peter Berg
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich
On 20th April 2010 the semi-submersible oil rig from which this film takes it’s title suffered a catastrophic failure of systems thanks to corners cut by BP in order to get the site producing as it was 43 days behind schedule. To do this, safety inspections critical to ensuring that the pipeline functioned correctly were bypassed against the expressed wishes of the safety officers on site. Peter Berg’s film dramatises these discussions as well as the apocalyptic disaster that followed shortly thereafter.
Berg applies the rigor of documentary-style reconstruction to his depiction of this horrendous event, which caused the deaths of 11 men working on the rig, led to significant pollution of the seas in which it took place and brought BP to heel in a PR clusterfuck. Throughout one senses that Berg’s watchword on mounting this film has been integrity; the very thing sacrificed by the men rushing the job. Deepwater Horizon takes it’s time bedding in. On the one hand this ups the suspense, as ticket buyers will know there are explosive consequences waiting in the film’s second half. On the other it beds in a sense of rigorous authenticity to the film, calling to mind the work of journalist-turned-dramatist David Simon (The Wire, Generation Kill, Treme).
So if you’re turning up expecting a thick-eared, rip-roaring actioner in the Die Hard mold, you may be in for a surprise. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of spectacle (Die Hard remains the high-water mark for self-contained action), but as the gravity of this true life situation establishes itself, it’s clear it would’ve been a churlish, even flippant route to take. No, Berg and screenwriters Matthew Sand and Matthew Michael Carnahan have made the wiser choice, delivering something fueled by facts and indignant fury.
The script feels steeped in research. Technical terminology is rarely if ever softened, yet Berg integrates dense information with visual cues so that the layman in the audience doesn’t feel isolated or out of the loop. It enables the film’s build-up to the inevitable pyrotechnics to truly feel immersive. One of the better recent examples of fly-on-the-wall style filmmaking being employed to ground a situation. Cliffnoting the root cause of the disaster may have gotten us there faster, but Sand and Carnahan’s more involved process makes us a part of each scene.
Giving life and humanity to the events are four key players. Mark Wahlberg takes the ostensible lead in this ensemble piece as Mike Williams, arriving on Deepwater that day. He’s a hardworking everyman destined to become a blue-collar hero. He is also our link to the world at home as his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) frets at with their daughter (these scenes – which conform to a well-worn trope of disaster movies – work in spite of their familiarity, as they contrast warmly to the vérité approach at sea).
Beside Wahlberg, Kurt Russell continues his welcome resurgence as chief of safety Jimmy Harrell, a man devoted to his job and fully aware of the implications should that watchword integrity be compromised. Russell proves yet again that he can expel a “son of a bitch” better than pretty much anyone. Across the table from these two sits John Malkovich, chewing up dialogue with a fanciful accent presumably of his own devising as BP man Vidrine; a worm who offers an ear only to close it again. Malkovich accepts himself as the focal villain of the piece and twirls a metaphorical moustache accordingly.
I said four players. And while Kate Hudson does her duty as the missus back home, the fourth name is Ethan Suplee, more commonly seen in comedic supporting roles, but here courting waves of audience sympathy as Jason Anderson, an operative pushed by Vidrine to go against his gut, stuck between a rock and a hard place. Suplee doesn’t get much comparatively, but he convinces wholeheartedly with what he has. The life of a supporting character actor can be a thankless one, so credit where it’s due for his contribution.
When all hell does break loose – and the gushers of fire triggering successive explosions conjure as hellish a vision as I can recall – Berg maintains his grip on events. Quick cutting enhances the effect of the polished and elaborate CG work at play here, meaning the decimation of the rig sells itself. The integrity that opened the picture maintains; Deepwater Horizon doesn’t abruptly shift gears to death-defying acts of acrobatic heroism, it continues to doggedly document ordinary working joes attempting to do extraordinary things.
Early on in the picture Berg seems driven to distraction by the practical applications of BP’s product as we wait at filling stations or watch the choppers taking the crew out to the rigs as they’re fueled. In doing so he reminds us how much we take for granted with fossil fuels, contrasting this once we’re at sea with the immense dangers and complications involved in keeping our cars on the road. His film is rather like the oil-soaked gull that crashes into a control room in the film’s second act; an abrupt and perhaps unwanted reminder of the ugliness that happens often outside of our attention but, once confronted with it, there is nothing but the fact of it.