The haunting images from the disaster that took place in 2010 on the Deepwater Horizon off-shore oiling rig terrified the world when they began circulating through the media. It was a traumatic nightmare for all those involved, but it also became an opportunity for many to perform true heroism for those in need. Workers on the rig itself banded together to get as many as they can away from the flames around them while the Coast Guard personnel dispatched risked their lives to rescue them. Such heroics should not be needed, however. This was an catastrophe that was caused by corporations cutting corners; something that should have been easily prevented. Simple negligence led to the creation of a true hell on earth.
Most disaster films in the “based-on-a-true-story” genre follow a general formula. Quickly set up your main characters while respecting the actual people that they are based on, introduce a terrible situation, then proceed to thrill the audience as well as inspire them with stories of brave heroes and big speeches. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of film. In fact, many of them hit the perfect note and prove to be powerful and moving experiences. Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon isn’t afraid to use a similar structure to provide a foundation for itself, but instead of seeking to inspire, it opts for a different tonal approach.
Just like the other films in the genre, Deepwater Horizon begins with various workers in the oil industry returning to their oil rig “Deepwater Horizon” for a month’s length of duty. The main emphasis is put on Mike Williams, played by Mark Wahlberg, who’s leaving behind his wife and daughter but is highly experienced in his work, as is his supervisor Jimmy Harrell, played by Kurt Russell. With their team, they make the most out of their technically failing facility while executives from BP Oil are checking in on their performance.
One of these executives oversteps their bounds and this mistake becomes the culmination of many that result in the total breakdown and explosive destruction of the rig. It comes out of nowhere and time is quickly running out. It is up to those who survived the initial destruction to find a way to escape.
This isn’t a story about heroes and high stakes. This is a story about survivors who should not have been forced to be survivors. The film is not a terribly political one, but it never forgets the mistakes that were made when other choices could have prevented lives being lost. It practices patience by devoting its entire first act to setting up the various characters and their lives, as well as what life is like living on the Deepwater Horizon. On top providing information about the world these people occupy, the film gives tidbits of information about how everything in the facility works, as well as why things began to go south so quickly and so suddenly. This is handled in a way that supports and adds to the audience’s intelligence, rather than boasting about its own. Because of this, the gravity of the situation is easily understood, the frustration about the situation is directed to the right targets, and no one in the film feels expendable. When the calamity quite literally explodes in the characters’ faces, it’s not an adventure; it’s a terrifying ordeal that doubles as a gritty and realistic thrill ride.
Mark Wahlberg and Kurt Russell provide downplayed, but entirely effective performances while Kate Hudson makes the most out of the “wife at home” character and provides the film with a much needed scared spectator perspective, especially as it transforms into nothing but non-stop action after the first act. Similarly to how James Cameron masterfully set up his film Titanic, director Peter Berg finds clever ways for the characters to explain how the rig itself functions so that as it melts down, every stage of it is understood. This is critical because once things start blowing up, there is no time for to slow down and explain what is happening. It is relentless and overwhelming, as the real incident likely was. This action is staged and framed in a way that conveys the chaos and unpredictability of the predicament, but is never incomprehensible and never resorts to full “shaky cam”. Every moment is clear and detailed, often providing some truly visceral images of the horrific blaze.
For as much time that is spent in the first act to properly set itself up, this time is not given in the finale as things calm down for the survivors. It ends too soon, leaving a lack of resolution for the characters that have been carefully and accurately introduced. Save for some text at the end of the movie that briefly details what the real life participants are doing today, the fallout of the cataclysm is never explored as much as it should be. There are a couple of genuinely affecting scenes, largely in thanks to stand out performances from the involved actors, but they are left without the debrief that the audience needs after experiences such intensity.
Peter Berg impressed many with his modern war film Lone Survivor, but it is still mainly underrated and looked over. The qualities that made Lone Survivor feel so grounded and personal carry over to Deepwater Horizon, so perhaps Berg may finally have the big Hollywood hit that he deserves after the mess that was Battleship. It is a focused film with an excellent sense of pace and character that delivers the thrills while also educating those who may not be so familiar with what went down at the real Deepwater Horizon half a decade ago.