It was April 20, 2010 when the Deepwater Horizon, a semi-submersible Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit exploded and triggered what to this day remains the largest accidental oil spill in world history. The tragedy, known as one of the worst man-made natural disasters ever, claimed the lives of eleven men and resulted in BP being found guilty of gross negligence and willful misconduct while Transocean and Halliburton's actions were determined to be negligent. In November 2012, BP pleaded guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter, two misdemeanors and a felony count of lying to Congress. In July 2015, BP agreed to pay $18.7 billion in fines, the largest corporate settlement in U.S. history.
Fortunately for all of us, Deepwater Horizon the movie isn't a Michael Bay film. It's not shiny or shallow or action-packed at the expense of reality or at the expense of the lives involved.
Peter Berg, director of such films as Lone Survivor and The Kingdom, isn't particularly known for producing highly stylized flicks instead often choosing authenticity over faux artistry. The same is true here. Deepwater Horizon is a compelling film, a convincing action flick that could easily stand on its own even if we didn't realize that the story is true and the lives, both saved and lost, involve real people who likely never fathomed such a tragedy could ever unfold even with the knowledge that the Deepwater Horizon's majority owner, BP, was a particularly adept cost-cutter not particularly hesitant to cut safety measures deemed unnecessary.
If there's a fault with Deepwater Horizon, and there is, it's that Berg, working off a script by Matthew MIchael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, spends way too much trying to draw us in to the human side of the story, a humanity that it's easy to forget when we get focused on the beyond epic failures of BP and all the political implications of the oil spill. Berg doesn't let us forget it. While it's understandable that we're going to get to know Wahlberg's Mike Williams, the rig's chief electronics technician just getting ready to start his latest three week sting on the Horizon, the script's drone-like insistence on driving home how deeply ingrained this way of life is in the lives of all involved becomes derivative and formulaic.
While the film's early scenes may feel overly obvious and a tad unnecessary, once the action gets going it's easy to understand what Berg was going for here. Berg has always had a knack for constructing the details in a way that gets the information across without losing the visual presentation. Once Wahlberg's Williams arrives on the Deepwater Horizon, we begin to get a sense of the awesomeness of the rig, the isolation of the experience and the overwhelmingly claustrophobic feeling that had to envelope those who were on the Deepwater Horizon the night it exploded.
The film's sound design, at least in the screening I attended, is a constantly muffled mixture of industry jargon mindless babble made more mindless by the fact that it's difficult to even understand. This may very well have been an intentional choice, though it's far less effective, nearly ineffective, in the film's first 45 minutes or so yet actually does serve to heighten the drama and suspense once the drama starts to unfold on the rig.
Mike Williams is the kind of role that Wahlberg could do in his sleep. To his credit, he doesn't sleep through it. Wahlberg has never been an actor of tremendous range, though what he does he can do mighty well and he's a consummate pro when it comes to weaving hints of vulnerability into his guy next door machismo. This is one of Wahlberg's better performances, an emotional honesty practically dragging us into his seemingly impossible situation.
While possessing a wider range than Wahlberg, Kurt Russell offers a perfect companion performance here as the crew's chief, Jimmy Harrell, who struggles to balance pleasing the ship's on-site operators, Bob Kaluza (Brad Leland) and Don Vidrine (John Malkovich), and following a gut instinct that tells him something is seriously wrong. The film's two resident baddies, corporate cost-cutters by any means necessary, are the closest thing that Berg serves up to caricatures with Malkovich, in particular, serving up a Bayou slather that practically swishes out evil.
The film's supporting players contain a few familiar faces including Gina Rodriguez as bridge officer Andrea Fleytas, Ethan Suplee as Jason Anderson and country crooner Trace Adkins in an appearance so brief you'll likely miss it. Kate Hudson is relegated to the standard disaster flick wife role, though her early scenes with Wahlberg do have some spark to them.
Enrique Chediak's lensing is harrowing throughout the actual disaster, opting for a stark reality devoid of the usual Bay-tinged kaleidoscopic fluorishes that may be easier to watch but add nothing to the actual film. Chediak's work, on the other hand, is intense and devastating and so suspenseful that even if one knows the entire story it's hard not to wonder what's going to happen. Simultaneously familiar and unsettling, Steve Jablonsky's original music seems to vibrate around the sounds of unfolding tragedy. It's a mixture of industrial noise meets human techno and symphonic immersion.
There's a certain sense of politics behind Deepwater Horizon and a clear laying down of blame at the corporate footprints of BP and Transocean and, to a lesser degree, Halliburton. Yet, ultimately, the vision may be to remember that even amidst the greatest tragedies, even the man-made ones, there are very real people doing very real jobs with very real lives that will never be the same.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic