Peter Berg reunites with his Lone Survivor star Mark Wahlberg for Deepwater Horizon, a biographical disaster film about the April 2010 explosion and subsequent firestorm that destroyed the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, killing 11 crew members and causing the worst accidental marine oil spill in history. The script, written by Matthew Sand and Matthew Michael Carnahan, adheres closely to the traditional disaster flick three-act structure of build-up, disaster strikes and aftermath. While the subject matter, computer generated special effects and Berg’s thoroughly modern directorial style keep things firmly anchored in the present, there is something very old school about Deepwater Horizon, and it definitely evokes films from the genre’s heyday in the 1970s, like Airport, Earthquake and The Towering Inferno.
The first act build-up introduces us to chief electronics technician Mike Williams (Wahlberg) as he prepares to leave his wife (Kate Hudson) and young daughter (Stella Allen) to spend 21 days on the ultra-deepwater rig drilling an exploratory well in the Gulf of Mexico. There is a lovely, lived-in authenticity and sexiness to the relationship between Hudson and Wahlberg’s characters from their very first scene together and it’s nice to be reminded of how good Hudson actually is when given decent material. When a shaken up can of Coca-Cola Mike is using to explain the mechanics of deepwater drilling to his daughter suddenly explodes all over the kitchen table it’s the first sign of things to come, and the sense of foreboding only grows from there.
Over the next forty-five minutes we meet a host of new characters, including 23-year old dynamic positioning operator Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), crew manager Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), floorhand Caleb Holloway (Dylan O’Brien) and BP well supervisor Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich). We also learn that there are serious problems with what Mike and others call “the well from hell” and that a lot of the rig’s critical equipment is either broken or malfunctioning. Berg repeatedly cuts to ominous underwater shots of gas bubbling up from the sea floor, but Vidrine and the other BP supervisors seem unconcerned. The operation is already 43 days behind schedule and they are eager to start drilling. John Malkovich brings the full force of his uniquely sinister charisma to bear as the Cajun accented Vidrine, insisting with poisonous pleasantness that drilling operations begin even after the rig fails an all important negative pressure test.
Finally the physical pressure and dramatic tension that have been mounting throughout Deepwater Horizon’s first act simultaneously explode in a truly shocking uncontrolled release of oil, seawater, mud and methane. Berg’s camera darts between half a dozen characters located in different areas of the rig, registering their reactions and forcefully conveying the horrifying scale and intensity of the carnage. Things take on an increasingly nightmarish quality as a firestorm engulfs the already ravaged rig and spreads to the oil and gas contaminated water around it. Wahlberg’s Williams quickly proves his value as the film’s protagonist by maintaining his composure amid the chaos and repeatedly risking his life to help other crew members escape the slowly sinking rig.
As solid and compelling as Wahlberg’s portrayal of real life heroism is during these scenes, the actor’s finest moments undeniably come during the final act of Deepwater Horizon. In the aftermath of the disaster we watch his character’s remarkable composure suddenly crumble as the shock and trauma of everything he has just witnessed and experienced finally catches up with him, and Wahlberg physicalizes the character’s emotional processing in a way that is both technically impressive and deeply affecting. Kurt Russell does similarly good work playing the grievously injured Harrell and Gina Rodriguez makes the most out of her small role, particularly when her character succumbs to a very human moment of panic towards the end of the film.
Well performed, well-directed and often visually stunning, Deepwater Horizon is both a sensitive depiction of a recent, real life tragedy and a thrilling throwback to the disaster flicks of the 1970s that is well worth your time.