Deepwater Horizon (2016)

Directed by Peter Berg
Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan & Matthew Sand

The disaster movie has long been a popular subgenre in movies, often with big explosions and world changing events. They usually focus on catastrophic (or potentially catastrophic) events which effect the whole world, such as Armageddon and Deep Impact, or Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow. Few, however, are about actual real life disasters. There are exceptions, like United 93 or World Trade Center, or even an extremely dramatized Titanic, but the main difference between the first group and the second is the balance between drama and action. The fake, made up disasters make for good entertainment because, well, they could never happen, right? The real disasters, however, often hit closer to home than we’d like, recalling harrowing days and moments in history when real lives were lost, when bad things really happened.

In 2010, Deepwater Horizon, a semi-submersible oil rig positioned in the Gulf of Mexico roughly 40 miles offshore, experienced what is called a “blowout”, causing massive damage to the rig, killing 11 crew members on board, later causing it to sink, and leading to the largest oil spill in U.S. history. The movie Deepwater Horizon tells this story through the eyes and actions of a few key members on board the rig when disaster struck. Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) is tasked with navigating the chaos that ensues after the blowout, helping fellow crew members to safety while risking his own life in the process. Meanwhile, his wife back home (Kate Hudson), fears the worst. They all fear the worst. Kurt Russell plays the rigs captain, while John Malkovich is the BP executive whose poor decisions likely caused the catastrophe.

I was worried a little bit about how this film would represent the disaster, how it might broach the subject of blame. The trailers made it look like a hectic action movie, made, like the “fake” disaster movies I mentioned before, for entertainment value, preying on the sympathies of its viewing audience. However, what was delivered reminded me much more of United 93 than it did Armageddon, a good thing to be certain. Director Peter Berg manages to capture the event in an effective “day in the life” style with no presumptions about what might happen except what the audience themselves brings to the film. And Berg definitely utilizes this prior knowledge, ramping up the tension continuously throughout as we wait to see what will be made of each problem, when the blowout will actually happen, an exactly how these characters might react once it does.

Berg doesn’t shy away from placing blame either, presenting the BP executives as negligent in the event, while carefully portraying the other rig workers, such as Wahlberg and Russell’s characters, as striving to follow protocol while being overruled by the BP execs, doing the best they can in response to the situation presented them. John Malkovich plays Don Vidrine wonderfully, giving him overconfidence with a tinge of evil befitting a villain. The rest of the cast is quite good as well, with a surprising bright spot coming from Dylan O’Brien, an actor with whom I was unfamiliar, playing one of the rig’s floorhands with such vitality and subtlety. The filmmakers seem to get so much of things right, taking great care to explain the how and why of the disaster without it ever coming across as forced into the narrative, a delicate balance.

United 93 is one of the best, most emotionally charged films I have ever experienced. So much so that I have not seen it a second time, and it is not a film I can ever get excited about to see again, yet it is a masterpiece of how to make a powerful, emotional, dedicated film about real life heroes in the midst of a disaster. Deepwater Horizon is not nearly as emotionally charged or impactful, mostly because the events themselves just don’t quite compare, but Berg has crafted an affecting film that is tense and thrilling from start to finish. Deepwater Horizon exceeded my expectations by treating the subject matter with care and appreciation. The film no doubt dramatizes things quite a bit, and does feature its share of explosions and action sequences, but the film also has heart, the heart required to pay tribute to those whose lives it affected. It feels like a fitting document.

*** – Very Good

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