The April 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in best known for the 210-million-gallon oil spill it caused and the fact that BP took a well-deserved PR and financial hit for causing it, but often lost in the narrative are the eleven lives lost and the heroes who prevented the casualty count from being much, much worse.
Director Peter Berg now brilliantly brings their horrific story to the screen, introducing us to the men and women who were on the platform that day and taking us so close to the people and the situation that Deepwater Horizon feels as visceral and authentic as any film so far this year. Berg has made a living trying to out-Michael Bay Michael Bay, but here he thankfully is content to simply focus on the humanity and the emotions of the day─and letting the events speak for themselves.
That’s not to say that Deepwater Horizon isn’t punctuated by the terrifying, deadly blowout and subsequent barrage of fiery explosions. You’ll feel everything down to your core, as the final hour of the film is a non-stop assault on the senses. But Berg and screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z) and Matthew Sand make sure it remains a story about real people doing incredible things in the face of hellish peril.
Mark Wahlberg is Mike Williams, the chief electronics technician for Transocean, the platform’s contractor. After kissing wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and their daughter goodbye, he heads out for his three-week stint at the BP-leased site. When he arrives he learns that the operation is 43 days and $50 million behind schedule, prompting BP to find any number of ways to cut corners and get things back on track. Transocean’s offshore manager Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), known affectionately to his crew as “Mr. Jimmy”, is fully aware of the risks and fights the shortcuts every step of the way, but since BP is essentially in charge, he has no choice. And history has recorded what happens next.
The actual blowout resulted from a number of different factors, many of which require a degree in engineering to understand, but Carnahan and Sand deftly navigate the science to make the disaster accessible. And Berg’s frequent cuts to ground zero, 5,000 feet down below sea level, not only help build the tension but also give us a layman’s look at the blowout about to come.
The backbone of Deepwater Horizon, however, is the people. We begin by watching Williams help his daughter with her science project, while the rig’s positioning operator Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) struggles with her broken-down car. These are real people with real personalities, and those little details go a long way in making the film a wholly engrossing story. Even the bad guys at BP aren’t cartoonish, mustache-twirling antagonists; John Malkovich breathes so much life into his portrayal of hideous supervisor Donald Vidrine that despite still being exposed for the careless and money-driven company man that he is, Vidrine nonetheless comes off as a human being.
Deepwater Horizon is a jarring, soul-shaking, white-knuckle experience. While it can’t really be called entertaining (since there’s precious little to feel good about), it can be called an awesome cinematic history lesson (despite BP’s expected, unfounded objections to the film). And it’s a heart-breaking, poignant reminder of the human cost (and heroics) of one of the worst environmental disasters in history.