Director : Peter Berg
Year Of Release : 2016
Principal Cast : Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O’Brien, Kate Hudson, Ethan Suplee, Trace Adkins, Brad Leland.
Approx Running Time : 118 Minutes
Synopsis: A dramatization of the April 2010 disaster when the offshore drilling rig, Deepwater Horizon, exploded and created the worst oil spill in U.S. history.
Consider this: one of the world’s largest man-made environmental disasters, the Deepwater Horizon explosion, has to-date cost BP, the company behind the operation of the failed oil-rig in the Gulf Of Mexico, some $54 billion. The company’s 2015 total revenue came in somewhere 6 times that amount. Meaning the cost of the Deepwater’s failure to BP is barely a drop in the ocean (pun intended) for the massive conglomerate, and some would suggest that perhaps they should have been gouged more for creating one of the worst catastrophe’s in modern history. Peter Berg’s memorialisation of the Deepwater incident, in which 11 people were killed and millions of gallons of crude oil spilled into the open ocean creating an enormous slick covering much of the US’s pristine lower coastline, is a compelling affair, maximised by Mark Wahlberg’s competent leading man performance and a gravitas that never steps into exploitation.
Wahlberg plays oil-rig worker Mike Williams, who leaves his family (including wife, Felicia – Kate Hudson) to work on BP’s rig, the Deepwater Horizon, out deep in the Gulf Of Mexico. Upon arrival, he’s surprised to learn that BP have apparently skipped a crucial safety test, which angers his boss, Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell). Not long after arriving, there is an incident on the rig, in which a massive fireball engulfs the vessel and begins to send it sinking into the water. The collapse of the rig also triggers an environmental disaster when a pipe ruptures, sending crude oil into the water to contaminate the surrounding landscapes. Williams, together with members of his injured crew, first attempt to contain the explosion and blaze, before realising that they might never make it off the rig if they don’t escape soon.
Corporate malfeasance doesn’t come much bigger than the incident depicted in Deepwater Horizon. It’s a film that should make you angry at the fuel company, and for good reason. BP’s corporate pencil-pushers, desperate to keep the Deepwater’s drill schedule on target (it wasn’t), push ahead with the programme despite safety being put at risk by decisions made. It cost them big time: to the tune of 11 deaths, countless gallons of oil escaping into the sea and the consequential environmental damage. To say nothing of their reputation, rightly put to the sword in Peter Berg’s eagerly true-life retelling of the events of April 20, 2010.
Deepwater Horizon plays with the narrative tension of any real life catastrophe, and since most people know what happened, it’s a credit to Berg and his writers – screenwriters Matthew Sand (who also has a story credit) and Matthew Carnahan (also a writer on Berg’s The Kingdom, as well as Lions For Lambs and World War Z) – who deliver what is a highly effective story of hubris, calculated risk, and of course utter disaster. What casual observers might not know is that BP weren’t the owners of the Deepwater rig, that belonged to Transocean, a private contracting firm paid by BP to get the drill site ready for oil removal. Transocean are portrayed here as pretty straight up blue-collar workers, led by their venerable chief Mr Jimmy, who have to balance safety with the demands of a corporate entity looming over them like Cthulhu. Whether this is entirely accurate I’m unsure, but knowing BP’s corporate structure I’m inclined to sway towards it at least being mostly accurate.
BP’s agenda and anger at delays with the drill site are provocative towards the endgame explosion, with John Malkovich playing the film’s central “villain” (not that anyone here is really evil, perhaps just ethically opaque) BP honcho Donald Vidrine, with his typical snarling feline accent. The film’s opening act sets up Vidrine and Mr Jimmy as combative elements to the narrative, with Wahlberg’s Mike Williams floating just off-camera as his wingman. Wahlberg’s heroics during the film’s explosive action set-pieces give him the width to go as broad as he can within the realms of the film’s realism, while the roster of ancillary riggers, with the exception of Ethan Suplee’s foreman role, blur into a mud-and-oil covered blur. To be honest, the characters in Deepwater Horizon are fairly one-note, they’re there primarily to prop up the blow-by-blow of the rig’s destruction and bring some humanity to it.
Despite hitting a number of cinematic tropes – including keeping Kate Hudson at home waiting for word on husband Wahlberg’s fate – Deepwater Horizon is utterly compelling throughout most of its running time. Survivalist angst and a sense of growing who’s-gonna-make-it keep audiences legitimately tense throughout, as the film tacitly echoes both Titanic and The Poseidon Adventure in alternating degrees of destructive culpability. Berg’s camera isn’t invasive in any sense, but feels authentically documentarian, giving the film an immediacy of fright, adrenaline and outright terror deserving of a moment in history that should long be remembered. Blessedly, the film eschews the hoo-rah American chest-thumping most of the time, allowing the story itself to develop organically, which overrides much of the stock character development. It’s a given we’re not here to see great characters – we’re here to watch an oil-rig implode and sink to the bottom of the ocean.
Deepwater Horizon is the kind of film no amount of propaganda from BP will easily disperse. Nor should it: the company’s vacillation about damage payment to relevant parties continues to demonstrate their reprehensible lack of moral fortitude. Peter Berg’s gripping, frightening and engaging film about the events of that tragic day is viscerally enthusiastic, and despite being thin with character development more than shifts its weight in cinematic entertainment. As a fitting memorial for those who lost their lives in this horrible incident, Deepwater Horizon strikes deep into the heart of corporate venality and trumps capitalist ideals for the sanctity of human life.
© 2017, Rodney Twelftree. All rights reserved.