In the new movie Deepwater Horizon, Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell star as workers aboard a deep-sea oil drilling rig who advise their corporate superiors on key safety protocol and testing procedures before giving the go-ahead to begin pumping crude.
But weeks behind schedule, the corporate men only see lost dollars and overly cautious measures that have led to an unnecessary delay. They force their subordinates’ hands to proceed, to disastrous results.
It’s the classic setup for a disaster movie, but with one key distinction: this isn’t a piece of fiction but the real-life events behind the disastrous 2010 BP oil spill.
Eleven men were killed aboard the Deepwater Horizon in 2010, but the spill off the coast of Louisiana was best-remembered for the catastrophic impact it had on the local environment. It was the largest marine spill in the history of the oil industry, with nearly 5 million gallons of crude dumped into the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s considered to be the largest environmental disaster in US history.
A dramatization of the events surrounding the spill was inevitable. What went wrong and who was responsible are questions many asked in the immediate aftermath of the spill, and they are questions that still aren’t entirely answered.
It’s a little strange, then, that director Peter Berg (Lone Survivor) and writers Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z) and Matthew Sand have crafted their vision of the events as an old-fashioned disaster movie, taking place (mostly) over the course of the single fateful day that everything went terribly wrong.
On that level, however, Deepwater Horizon is a real blast. We don’t get many serious-minded disaster movies these days, but the true-story angle and attention to detail in depicting what went wrong helps this film soar far above the likes of San Andreas or Into the Storm.
The only complaint here – noted by almost every other reviewer – is that the large-scale impact of the oil spill on the environment gets lost in the action. Deepwater Horizon focuses entirely on the human element, dedicating itself to the eleven men who lost their lives; it does right by them, but loses perspective on the bigger picture in the process.
Mark Wahlberg is Mike Williams, the Chief Technician trying to keep the oil rig working with duct tape and elbow grease; at the beginning of the film, he estimates that 10% of the equipment on board, including basic features like telephone lines and internet, are non-functional. Kate Hudson, like the female lead in most films like this, gets to worry about him back at home.
Kurt Russell is “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell, the crew captain aboard the ship trying to follow the right testing procedures with BP executives breathing down his neck.
They’re both at odds with BP supervisors Bob Vidrine and Robert Kaluza, portrayed by John Malkovich and Brian Leland. Malkovich, with a N’awleans-inflected Cajun twang, is wonderfully slimy as the BP scapegoat the film lays the blame on.
In reality, while Vidrine and Kaluza were charged with manslaughter, the counts were dismissed. Responsibility for the disaster falls on the corporation, but Deepwater Horizon almost seems to let BP off the hook.
Throughout the first half of the movie, there are a lot of undersea close-ups up and down the pipeline, bubbling beneath the ocean floor, gauges giving readings that they shouldn’t be, bolts about to give way and pipes about to burst.
We don’t understand exactly what went wrong and why, but director Berg does a great job of covering that up through filmmaking technique: we know that something is wrong, and that it’s getting worse, and the tension mounts until it reaches the breaking point.
When those pipes do burst towards the end of the second act, the evacuation and collapse of the Deepwater Horizon provides for a spectacularly impressive final setpiece. There are no superheroes or CGI characters in this movie, but the practical work that went into creating (and then destroying) the massive oil rig led to a budget in the neighborhood of $130 million.
Deepwater Horizon may not be the all-encompassing document of the 2010 BP oil spill that many crave, but it succeeds in other areas. We had another good, old-fashioned disaster movie this year in Disney’s The Finest Hours, and here’s an intense, explosive companion.