Eleven people died on April 10, 2010 when a fire struck the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig stationed off the coast of Louisiana. Seeing Deepwater Horizon, director Peter Berg’s reenactment of the events leading up to it makes you wonder whether even more people might have died if not for the brains and bravery of a few individuals.
Told from the perspective of Mark Wahlberg’s Mike Williams, the Deepwater Horizon’s Chief Electronics Technician, Berg’s film is obviously going to glorify his actions both before and after the fire that caused one of the largest oil spills in U.S. history.
We’re introduced to Williams and a couple of his colleagues in the obligatory opening sequence where they’re preparing to be transported to the Deepwater Horizon facility. Kurt Russell plays veteran “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell, the man in charge of the Deepwater Horizon who ironically, is presented with an award for safety, shortly before the blow-out. Gina Rodriguez is Andrea, seemingly the only woman working on the rig, but tough enough not to get treated any differently.
Much of the film’s first 45 minutes are used to set-up the actual disaster, filling our heads with a lot of technical jargon about “negative pressure tests” and such. You probably won’t learn enough to work on an oil rig yourself, but it’s pretty obvious there are problems being created by visiting BP execs. Set up early as the main antagonist is John Malkovich’s Donald Vidrine, a slimy individual with a steep Cajun accent, who just wants to start drilling for the oil that is his company’s livelihood. We’re given a lot of foreshadowing of what’s to come, beginning with a shot of the spot at the floor of the ocean where the cement seems to be cracked.
This seems like an obvious direction for Peter Berg to take his career following 2013’s Lone Survivor, also with Wahlberg, and even 2007’s underrated war drama The Kingdom, because he’s once again exploring the world of underrated heroes, this time in the men (and one woman) who had a plan to leave the rig once everything checked out.
Deepwater Horizon is very much a disaster flick, but more in the Irwin Allen variety than Roland Emmerich’s more exaggerated recent attempts. As you watch, it’s hard not to think back to something like The Towering Inferno, released in 1974 almost as a warning about building skyscrapers like the recently-built World Trade Center. Whether intentional or not, this one questions the lengths we go through to mine the earth of all its resources, putting people’s lives in danger for profit.
While there are three or four primary players, Berg doesn’t short-change the rest of the crew, each of whom have moments with Mike or Jimmy during the set-up, Mike knowing almost all of them by name. Of course, once the mud and oil starts flying everywhere and fire breaks out, you probably won’t be able to recognize any of them or figure out who is who.
That’s also when the movie starts to really get exciting, since Berg has effectively created the tension and suspense to keep the audience on the edge of their seat on who will be make it out alive.
It’s fairly easy to give Wahlberg grief for his inability to deliver a plausible Texan accent (again!) or to show much range, but his character isn’t required to give long emotional speeches. This is all about survival and getting off the Deepwater Horizon, and Wahlberg does a sufficient job creating a character you’ll root for every step of the way.
Also quite good is Kate Hudson in her dramatic role as Mike’s wife Felicia, who worries about her husband’s safety while watching the fire on television. She gives such a good performance, it might make you wonder why she doesn’t do more serious films and fewer comedies. (There’s a scene where she hugs Kurt Russell’s character where their real-life relationship clearly adds even more to the warmth of the scene.)
In some ways, the best comparison for Berg’s film might be last year’s Everest, at least in terms of the scope of the film and his worthy attempts at creating the most authentic environment possible in which to tell this story. There are certainly a couple of “Hollywood moments” while trying to elevate Mike Williams as a hero, but it ultimately works as well as it did in Lone Survivor.
If you’re at all even remotely curious about the events on the Deepwater Horizon that killed eleven people, you’ll marvel at the lengths Peter Berg, his cast and his crew went to recreate it. It creates the type of taut and tense excitement many of us expect when we go to the movies, made even scarier by how much of it might have happened exactly as shown.
Deepwater Horizon will open on September 30 following its premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.