On the heels of Sully, we have another tense, biographical drama based around a recent American event, only this time with more disaster-based thrills. Deepwater Horizon recounts the events that led up to the explosion and subsequent fire on an offshore drilling unit, resulting in the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history. Rather than heavily dwelling on the aftermath and politics involved though, this is a film about the workers involved and what they went through on the night of April 20, 2010. The result is a well-acted thriller that makes the most out of having a matter-of-fact handling on disaster movie tropes.
Following some basic setup that serves as the first of many warning signs, we get a sense of who the main players are. Mark Wahlberg is Mike Williams, a devoted husband and father, with a good eye for what could be better on his rig. Kurt Russell is Jimmy Harrell, the respected leader of all the workers. Gina Rodriguez is Andrea Fleytas, one of the operators of the rig. As the film shifts the action to the Deepwater Horizon, a good chunk of the film is spent on inside baseball-type discussions regarding all the ins and outs of this vessel. The main takeaway becomes an understanding of how John Malkovich’s Donald Vidrine is sacrificing proper tests and time in an effort to save money.
While there is obviously a bit of mustache twirling in Malkovich’s performance, he is nonetheless convincing as his character. This whole first half (or however long) devotes itself to getting a read on these characters and Malkovich, Wahlberg, Russell and Rodriguez all deliver. There’s also Ethan Suplee, young Dylan O’Brien and a handful of character actors who all provide grounded performances as regular workers. While director Peter Berg and writers Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand may put a little too much focus on rat-a-tat dialogue in the midst of a very plausible reality, the basic drama on display registers enough to prepare one for the resulting disaster.
Once Deepwater Horizon kicks into high gear, the film does a pretty fantastic job of showing the resulting chaos. With all the talk about pressure levels, the film does plenty to show just how damaging these effects were and why this explosion became what it was. Seeing various characters suddenly get pummeled with water, mud, fire and debris leads to some intense moments to watch. Regardless of the amount of CG and stunt people involved, Berg’s direction really places the audience in this disaster with these characters and it’s very effective.
Now there can be a rationale that underlines how unfortunate that a tragedy such as this has been made into a film for an audience to find entertainment value in. This also wouldn’t be the first time to argue as such, but with this particular film, the nature of the event comes into play. Without spoiling too much history (because some are nervous about these kinds of things), for those reading about this event from the outside, the resulting oil spill managed to overshadow the fact that a number of people died in the explosion. As Berg is a director who like to put focus on immortalizing people he deeply respects, his on-the-ground approach to filmmaking does pay off here, without feeling like exploitation.
Again, it helps that the cast is primed and ready to do what is required of them. Wahlberg, in particular, really does shine here. As the movie is (like Sully) about regular workers just doing their jobs in heightened scenarios, we watch Wahlberg’s Mike do what is needed of him without turning into a superhero. Even when considering a moment that allows for a major trailer shot, the film has Wahlberg breaking down soon after. When a reconnection is made between he and his wife (Kate Hudson, making the best out of the “worried wife” role), it is not an easy moment for the characters. For all the bravado and laid back earnestness in other Wahlberg roles, this film chooses to show him as incredibly vulnerable.
If one wants to break it down further, Deepwater Horizon does fall into a pattern generally seen in disaster movies. Once the action gets going, it means little for further character shading (minus what I’ve said about Wahlberg and some great visual exchanges between the “good guys” and the “bad”). Regardless, it does not take away from watching a film that gets to the heart of the matter as far as why things could go bad, seeing a solid cast discuss these issues and delivering the explosive results. It makes for a fine film that stays away from outside politics, but is not out of its depths when it comes to what a number of workers unfortunately had to go through.