Peter Berg’s DEEPWATER HORIZON does not mince cinematic words when it comes to telling the story of the worst off-shore oil rig disaster in history. It can be summed up in three words. Profit over people. It’s a screed, alright, but a compelling, and beautifully crafted one about ordinary people facing the unimaginable with courage and dignity, their essential humanity intact.
On April 20, 2011, the eponymous rig went up in flames, causing an underwater oil spill that resisted all attempts to cap the flow of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 87 days. The events that led up to it are set forth in a straightforward manner. The essential exposition we need to understand the implications of the BP oil executives pushing the crew of the Deepwater to cut corners and ignore troubling test results is set forth in an only slightly precious conversation between the rig’s chief electrician, Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) and his daughter, who use a soda can, a metal valve, and some honey to demonstrate what it is exactly that is happening under the miles of delta mud. It’s followed by much more natural sounding banter and small talk among the crew as Mike catches up after his three weeks off the rig. There’s newly poured concrete that is not being tested for readiness, and executives aboard worrying about being over a month behind schedule behind that decision. The rig’s operations manager, Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), has no trouble confronting said execs over their penny-pinching ways, but does not have the authority to stop the head BP honcho, Vidrine (John Malkovich), when he makes the command decision to push ahead with smug condescension and promises to report to headquarters the concerns for safety as a lack of team spirit. He and Russell have mastered the fine southern art of surface civility that hides nothing of the profound contempt they feel for one another, but keeps the social order intact, a key component that allows Russell to later unleash a look that very likely might kill it if were a whit more intense while maintaining emergency protocols.
The film is a carefully calibrated study in contrasts between the forces of nature, the fragility of humankind, and the consequences of hubris when the latter deals with the former. Blasts of sound give way to the heavy breathing of a BP executive stumbling amid the chaos in a state of shock, and the lights of a rescue helicopter disappearing into the night as it travels the 40 miles offshore to the rig. The hubris is perfectly distilled in Malkovich’s non-plussed performance that wears its arrogance with a casual comfort that brooks no inkling that there could be another order of things. When things start to go wrong, his reaction is akin to a personal affront that nature is not cooperating.
Nature is as much a character as any of the actors. The tiny bubble bursting from the ocean floor that presages the disaster of crude oil bursting through the exploratory pipe with a force that twists girders and flattens the inhabitants of the rig. The gentle rumble from below that explodes into a conflagration that leaves the water itself in flames, and the camera work that shows everything in detail, but is edited together with such precision that we are left in the same disoriented state as the characters scrambling for their lives.
Wahlberg is a revelation. Through most of the action, he’s exactly what we’d expect him to be, a charismatic good ol’ boy who springs into action without hesitation when lives are at stake. It’s what he does with the character after the adrenalin has stopped pumping that is a revelation. The way he crumples physically and emotionally is raw, real, and absolutely devastating in its all but absolute silence and complete vulnerability.
Smartly written, perfectly acted, and genuinely heart-stopping throughout, DEEPWATER HORIZON is a compelling dystopian vision of corporate greed rendered as a spectacular special effects action-adventure.